The Washabuck MacLeans,
Celtic Colours 2002
at the Royal Canadian Legion
in Iona, Cape Breton, NS
(17 October 2002)

It was a rainy day, and a muddy earth, drowned worm on the sidewalk kind of night. That didn't dissuade me from driving south, grabbing the ferry towards Washabuck ($5 for a 90-second ferry ride?!) and parking on the treacherously thick, wet grass outside the Royal Canadian Legion in Iona.

The occasion was the Washabuck MacLeans, a celebration of people and a place in the Celtic Colours festival series.

First on the schedule was local fiddler Carl MacKenzie, who performed with his son, Lyndon, on guitar and Pat Chafe on piano. He started with "Carolan's Concerto" and a set of Irish reels. He started to name the next set of Cape Breton tunes, but gave up midway through the list. "The Lord knows what we'll play after that," he said.

Fast and slow, MacKenzie demonstrated why he's a perennial local favorite.

Next up was John MacLean, a monster piper who shows a great deal of finesse despite his great size. The room and the number of bodies crammed into helped to dead the powerful sound -- the highland pipes are not, after all, an indoor instrument.

Gordon MacLean provided the piano backdrop. At one point, John MacLean invited his white-haired aunt, Maggie MacLean MacLellan, to the stage, where she seemed to gain energy as she danced a spritely set.

Then Gordon, one of the "lighthouse MacLeans," held court for a few piano sets before host Hector MacKenzie called an intermission.

Hector, by the way, was a real treat all evening. His dry sense of befuddled, self-deprecating humor kept the audience laughing every time he came to his special, low-to-the-floor microphone.

The show resumed with a brief exhibition of stepdancing by sisters Jill and Susan and cousin Marsha MacLean. Then it was the MacNeils' turn -- not the Barras, but the Brothers. With Lucy newly mommied, brothers Sheumas, Kyle and Stewart from Sydney Mines had to go it alone.

While lacking Lucy's vivacious personality, the MacNeils remain one of the most sublimely talented family bands to come from Cape Breton -- and the island has certainly spawned its share of exceptional family bands! Mixed among several great tune sets, the band of brothers sang some of their signature songs, including "Standing by the Subway," "Down the Coal Town Road" and "Don't Call Me Early," plus a distinctive arrangement of Andy M. Stewart's "The Queen of Argyll." Kyle, the band's fiddler, also gave a moving interpretation of "The Marquis of Huntly's Snuff Mill"; after the busy week behind me, only the shear loveliness of his playing kept it from being a lullaby. And if it wasn't gorgeous enough already, Stewart's tin whistle harmony made it soar.

For the Washabuck finale, Sheumas kept to the keyboards while fiddlers Kyle MacNeil and Carl MacKenzie returned to the stage. Joining them were dancers Jill, Susan and Marsha MacLean, who traded their hard shoes for fiddles of their own, and their renowned grandfather Michael Anthony MacLean. MacKenzie got the group going; soon, all six fiddles were singing.

It wasn't the most polished performance, admittedly, and the players ranged across the stage were certainly at different levels of skill, but it was a great Cape Breton moment because it's just this kind of community that makes the island such a special place to be.

The final set also included a uniquely Washabuck tradition, the "bear dance." A bulky figure, dressed in bright, clown-like clothes, shambled onto the stage and danced -- sometimes alone, sometimes with ladies drawn from the front rows.

Members of the MacLean family later explained that the tradition dates back several generations, originating with the Brown family that once called the area home. "They always did that sort of dance," said Charlotte MacLean. "It's become a Washabuck tradition ... but we don't know where they learned the dance." Jill MacLean said the shambling dance is supposed to imitate a bear's movements. "They're dancing around, they're scratching, they're picking berries," she said.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 7 December 2002