Strings & Things,
Celtic Colours 2002
at the Wagmatcook Cultural Centre
in Wagmatcook, Cape Breton, NS
(16 October 2002)

As a newlywed wishing to spend some time with my hubby (who did not share my good fortune of having a press pass), I was slightly more limited in the number of shows I was able to see at this year's Celtic Colours festival. Strings & Things is one show I did manage to attend, and I'm certainly glad that I didn't miss it!

This venue took place at the relatively new Wagmatcook Cultural Centre, which contains a wealth of cultural and historical learning opportunities on Cape Breton's Mic-Macs, as well as the large auditorium where the concert was held. This was the first opportunity I'd had to attend a musical venue at the new centre; the auditorium was impressive, both for its size and its acoustic quality. To go with this top-notch venue, it just so happened that we were in for a night of top-notch entertainment as well!

The first act of the evening was Cowboy Celtic, a band from Alberta with a rather unique style. The band evolved from David Wilkie's efforts to seek out the roots of traditional cowboy music. As it turns out, much of the tradition began with the Celtic music imported from across the seas. Thus, the music of Cowboy Celtic is a delightful mix, with traditional Celtic tunes and instrumentation flavouring the songs and stories of the Old West. Wilkie provides mandolin and vocals, while Denise Withnell (guitar, vocals), Scott Ring (whistles), Joe Hertz (fiddle) and Keri Zwicker (Celtic harp, vocals) complete the lineup.

The band's presentation was excellent. Filled with witty commentaries and historical anecdotes, Cowboy Celtic easily captured the attention of the audience. Instrumental harmonies were abundant, vocals excellent, and the band had a polished and energetic presence. I quite enjoyed the instrumental arrangements, and they provided a wonderful blend of material that was not only chock-full of musical talent, but also entertaining.

The next performers were Cape Breton natives J.P. Cormier and Hilda Chiasson-Cormier, and it was apparent from the moment they were introduced that they would be playing to an appreciative home crowd. The Cormiers did not disappoint. Beginning on guitar, J.P. set his fingers flying right from the start, with Hilda's more-than-able accompaniment on piano.

The duo performed a great mix of songs and tunes, including appealing harmonies, both vocal and instrumental. J.P. proved why he is known as a master of all things stringed with sets on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo -- all incredible in tempo, clarity and expression. Hilda's accompaniment was impeccable with a good mix of complex chording and melodies. I simply love the music that this duo produces -- my only question is, does J.P. ever smile? While there is ample expression in his music when one's eyes are closed, open them and you might be tempted to take his pulse!

Next to the stage was the California-based Alison Brown Quartet, appearing for the first time at Celtic Colours. The band consists of John R. Burr (piano), Garry West (bass), Kendrick Freeman (drums) and, of course, Alison Brown (banjo). The quartet was phenomenal -- highly polished, excellent instrumental combinations -- and simply bursting with talent. Each band member was a master of his instrument, and the music melted together seamlessly. Brown had some good anecdotes to share with the audience, and Burr and Freeman at least looked to be having a good time (Brown and West were rather subdued).

That said, the band seemed slightly out of place at this venue. Yes, they were excellent -- but, the music they played was, for the most part, not what I would consider "Celtic." Definitely more in the jazz genre, which is all fine and dandy, but hey! I, as I'm sure many others did, came to hear Celtic music. Granted, they did play a few things that were more on the Celtic side, but certainly not enough for my tastes!

My opinion of the Alison Brown quartet improved a lot when they were joined by Scotland's 4-string banjo whiz Eammon Coyne. That's when they started playing more Celtic tunes ... and Coyne's stage presence made up for Brown and West's more subdued state. Coyne appeared to be truly enjoying himself, and his music was filled with life. Coyne is a tremendous talent on the banjo as well. His performance so impressed me that I had to go off and buy a CD immediately following the concert. 'Nuff said!

After Coyne played with the quartet, the Cormiers joined Brown and Coyne on stage for a rip-roaring set of tunes as a prelude to the finale of the evening. And what a set! Energetic and rousing, each musician took turns leading what came across as an off-the-cuff, fun set of tunes. I would have loved to have heard Brown play more of this style, as she certainly held her own here.

Next, the Celtic Cowboys returned to the stage, and the whole lot played another set. One of the characteristics of the Celtic Colours festival that I enjoy most are finales, which involve all of the evening's performers. These give the audience a chance to see unique combinations of musicians together, and add the raw energy of a jam session to the atmosphere. The final set of the Strings & Things concert was no exception ... it left the audience thirsting for more as they left the Cultural Centre with a music-induced spring to their steps. A wonderful end to the evening!

- Rambles
written by Cheryl Turner
published 16 November 2002