Festival Club,
Celtic Colours 2002
at the Gaelic College,
St. Ann's, Cape Breton, NS

The Festival Club continued in 2002 to be the scene for many of the best moments at Celtic Colours.

The club ran from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. each night after the featured concerts were done. Musicians and patrons from venues all over Cape Breton made their way to the Gaelic College in St. Ann's to enjoy the party atmosphere and excellent tunes that have become a nightly tradition. Here are some of the highlights from 2002:

• Watching accordion greats Phil Cunningham (Scotland) and Sharon Shannon (Ireland) as they watched Irish-American accordion legend Joe Derrane, who played an amazing set with the equally legendary fiddler Frankie Gavin and pianist Brian McGrath.

• A surprise visit from Irish band Danu, who showed up on an off-night of their tour, driving several hours out of their way (St. Ann's is not en route between New Brunswick and Pictou!) to close down the club with the regulars. On other nights, Prince Edward Island band Celtitude and British Columbia fiddler Ivonne Hernandez also made surprise appearances.

• Witnessing some of the incredible pick-up bands that came out of the musicians' backstage interactions. On one night, the club closed down with an unbroken 40-minute blast featuring local fiddlers Troy MacGillivray, Andrea Beaton and Joe Peter MacLean, plus Sheumas MacNeil on piano, John Ferguson on guitar, Cheryl Smith on drums and Daniel Lapp on trumpet. So vigorous was the music, a few dozen members of the crowd couldn't resist a ragged but tireless square set that continued 'til nearly 4 a.m.

• Seeing Sharon Shannon excitedly swapping shoes with several members of the crowd at the foot of the Festival Club stage. Seeing her touring singer, Pauline Scanlon, trade shoes and shirts with one of the guys.

• Hearing Phil Cunningham reprise his delightfully off-key rendition of "Danny Boy" for the crowd; many of us first heard the unique interpretation a time or two during 2001's raucous season.

• Seeing young up-and-comer Cynthia MacLeod from Prince Edward Island, playing her fiddle with a grin so wide I feared her cheeks might crack, kicking off from the stage with both feet so fiercely I half expected her to take off.

• Watching Kendra MacGillivray, Troy MacGillivray and Dave MacIsaac toss a lengthy stream of melodies around while Sabra MacGillivray showed off her dancing excellence. Sabra's not only one of the finest massage therapists I've yet encountered, but wow -- when her feet start flying, you know you've advanced to another level. (Sabra is virtually inexhaustible and has steps so fresh, I think she must be inventing them on the spot. Later that evening, she confided that she sometimes is.) Meanwhile, Kendra continued to drive the music forward with unparalled energy, closing out the set by jumping to her feet and joining her sister in the dance.

Even when the Festival Club draws to a close, there are always more opportunities for music. The famous after-hours sessions are but one example. Typically, these sessions -- featuring performers who never seem to grow tired of playing -- run 'til sun-up and beyond.

The sessions don't sit still for long, either. In 2000, I participated in sessions outside the cafeteria in the neighboring dormitory where musicians slept. Acting on complaints from a few foolhardy individuals who wanted sleep, the sessions were moved in 2001 to the infamous "craic house" -- basically, an unheated shed in a quieter corner of campus. Still, the lack of restroom facilities (most participants used the nearby treeline) and the lack of insulation (does alcohol really keep you warm?) signaled a short life for that locale as well.

In 2002, the sessions were relocated to the cramped green room, the area backstage at the Festival Club. It was a logical choice, since sessions tend to crop up spontaneously throughout the evening as musicians come and go from the room, although security was so tight after 3 a.m. that musicians were barred from the restrooms and had to make do with a portable unit outside.

Unfortunately, festival organizers decided to crack down on participants this year, forbidding anyone who wasn't on the festival payroll from playing in sessions. That was disappointing news to a lot of local and visiting musicians who enjoyed the casual interaction and the chance to play with the "stars." Many touring performers also expressed disappointment in the new rule, noting they enjoyed the chance to sit back and listen to other people jam for a while, joining in as the spirit moved them. The new mandate prohibited them from inviting friends and acquaintances to the jam.

Sadly, some organizers need to be reminded that music lives best in a fluid, communal environment. Strict regulations governing who can play when and where are fine in a concert setting, but it stifles the purpose of a session.

But music won't be denied, and many people got around the new restrictions by seeking entertainments elsewhere. Some folks went back to congregating and jamming in the dormitory lobby. (I didn't hear of any complaints about the noise this year, but the music was grand!) Others were invited to join the excitement at outside locales, such as the big Belle Cote hoopla that ran for more than 10 hours on a government tab, and an all-night party that ran past sunrise one morning at the MacNeil home (parents of the four siblings in the Barra MacNeils) in Sydney Mines.

Celtic Colours is about music, and there are innumerable opportunities to hear and play in Cape Breton. First-time visitors should always explore beyond the limits of the official festival program to see what entertainments are lurking on the periphery.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 30 November 2002