Only A Woman's Heart,
Celtic Colours 2002
at SAERC Auditorium in
Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton, NS
(13 October 2002)

During Celtic Colours this year the hills and roadsides seemed to glow. Some years there's more variety than others but this year, colours spread from pale pink to deep burnished red, from pumpkin orange to gold and copper with bits of bright yellow, and they deepened every day. It helps make the driving more enjoyable, especially since the concerts are held all around the island of Cape Breton.

Let's go to the stage, indoors, away from the marvelous colours and scenery, where we find the musicians. This evening, at a concert in Port Hawkesbury, five miles from the land entrance to Cape Breton Island where you're welcomed into the bosom of the Ceilidh Trail, the performers are women, four separate acts ranging from Gaelic singing to Celtic electric harp with a bit of country thrown in.

Wendy Bergfeldt is the emcee. She's a radio personality from the Sydney area with a strong voice, and she creates a warm, cordial atmosphere for the crowd that fills the theatre at the Strait Area Education & Recreation Centre. I'm used to seeing someone local on the stage here, so it didn't feel as much like "home" as it usually would -- at first. She described this evening's concert as one of the "most special evenings" of the festival and she won the hearts of the local audience with the warning she gave those who were from "away." She told the audience to be careful while on the island; that she came here several years ago just to do a bike tour. And then she shrugged, indicating the mysterious force that changed her life and fated that years later, she's still here.

This was a concert featuring women and women's music. It's the usual format for the Port Hawkesbury show but was the first time I attended. Of the four acts, two were familiar: Mary Jane Lamond, a singer of Gaelic songs, originally from Ontario who now lives in Glendale, Cape Breton, and Raylene Rankin, formerly of Mabou, who told us she drove down from Halifax to perform.

The night opened with Mary Jane a cappella, her voice turning out the breathy Gaelic sounds with the precision of the scholar and instructor that she is. She sang an unrequited love song; a song written by a man about a beauty he shall love even if the snow on the tree branches should turn black; waulking songs that are like sea shanties for men, that is, sung to make work easier. Wendy MacIsaac, a great all-round musician, joined in on keyboard adding a sweet sound to Mary Jane's earthy tones. Gaelic singing often doesn't need accompaniment in my view, but this worked well. Then Mary Jane moved into "puirt a beul," or mouth jigging, while Wendy stepdanced to the voiced rhythms. They were definitely accustomed to being together on stage.

At one point Mary Jane told the full house, "You have to tap your feet, it's the law." The carpet muted the sound of the tapping to a light whisper instead of that rhythmic sound, that often grows in tempo with the music, on a hard surface. The whole evening was fairly muted, even sedate. I spent the evening waiting for some "fun" to happen.

Shine, from Scotland, followed. The two electric harps were an unusual sight and they did shine, one black and one bright blue. The harpists, Mary Macmaster and Corrina Hewat, along with vocalist Alyth McCormack, did Gaelic songs, waulking songs, "My Tocher" by Robert Burns and "Small Wars" by Rick Taylor. Alyth's voice sang the Gaelic songs the way I remember them sung in my youth, with a lot of high and low, back and forth rhythms, her voice as fluid as a warm summer stream. The majority, though, were slow, sad airs that had me itching for something with more energy.

I know the advertisement may be a necessary evil, and perhaps there's no great way to make it fit into the program gracefully, but I cringed at the announcement of a list of ways for the audience to leave more money in Cape Breton. This is a touchy aspect of our culture, but regrettably it may be key to the survival and growth of our island's economic existence.

The second part of the evening began with Raylene Rankin's performance, the highlight of the night. She lightened things up "with a little ditty about life in the country" followed by a Cape Breton lullaby. Her vibrant soprano filled the air and seemed to settle the audience. She took us with her up "Gillis Mountain" and then, with sister Heather, touched the audience in true Cape Breton style by sharing a song written by their late brother John Morris Rankin that had never been put on album. "Lambs in Spring" rejoiced in the mystery of life and the sisters gave it their all. On Leon Dubinki's "Rise Again," Raylene's voice sparkled.

Irish singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy's composition "Only a Woman's Heart" gave this concert its name. She also brought tremendous guitar playing and a great voice to the concert although there was not a lot of Celtic in the sound. She played a few strong notes on the fiddle to intro one of her vocals. Eleanor sang a wide range of songs from modern folk angst to country to old Irish fishing verse and she was a comfortable and relaxed entertainer. I kept wishing she'd let loose and driver'er though on either the fiddle or guitar.

And that was it. I heard later that there was a finale, and that Eleanor sang her hit song "Only a Woman's Heart," but I'm sorry to say I (and a lot of the audience who left ahead of me) missed it. It's not considered good form in Cape Breton to leave a concert before it's over, but for some reason that evening part of the crowd seemed to have mistaken the cue for the end.

Although the individual acts were all good, it just didn't feel like I had attended a Cape Breton concert. I would have liked a local female fiddler to tie it all together, to put a Cape Breton stamp on it, and I wondered if the audience knew what music they were missing.

- Rambles
written by Virginia MacIsaac
published 4 January 2003