Celtic Women
at SAERC Auditorium,
Port Hawkesbury, NS
(12 October 2003)

I was eager for this concert. SAERC (the Strait Area Education & Recreation Centre) is a comfortable venue and they have held a concert on the Celtic Women theme for a number of years. The night before in Whycocomagh, the stage stood high above the audience members' heads and we looked way up to see; tonight we were in theatre seats looking steeply down to the performance on the floor below. Both were fine, but there was a marked contrast in perspectives.

The line-up of performers were all unknown to me, except for one home-grown musician, Natalie MacMaster. Emcee Bob MacEachern described her as "our Natalie from just down the road on Route 19." Like last year, the concert was not strong on multiples of Cape Breton talent, but unlike last year, I found some new-to-me talent whose performances will remain in my collection of precious musical memories.

The first performer on stage and the musician who made the biggest impression on me for her ethereal qualities was Sian James, a Welsh singer and extremely animated harp player. James's first time at Celtic Colours proved she was an authentic treasure with a light, clear Welsh accent, lively sense of humour, fine bursts of energy -- a grand purveyor of Welsh culture. She was the spirit of music on stage wrapped in the tawny colors of her hair, dress and harp.

She introduced us to macaronic singing, where she sang one line of a song in Welsh and the second line in English and continued to alternate throughout the piece. It was a beautiful love song and gave the old Welsh lyrics meaning to those who don't speak the language. I was amazed by how she seemed to roll sounds around in her mouth, warming them up like a piece of toffee and then releasing others quickly with a short sharp breath. She touches the harp as if it's a living piece of her; she plays with her hands and arms and with her whole body. Energy surrounds the harp as she bids it to do her will. As we watched her in the soft spotlight, this woman playing the harp could have existed at any moment in history.

I shook myself back to modern times when Karine Polwart came to the stage. A modern-looking girl with a big guitar, she proceeded to gain my vote for the performer I could have listened to all night long. Her relaxed persona on coming to the stage didn't lead me to expect much but her words and voice soon conveyed a sincere respect for traditional ballads and stories of her repertoire. How I enjoyed it as she sang traditional Scottish ballads and showed a great talent for creating new ones. This is how I like my history and gossip, straightforward in song. And so I had to agree with her, when she said (jokingly?) to the crowd, "Good things come from the Lowlands, too," referring both to herself and her songs. As much as my Highland blood rebuffs the idea, it also recognizes truth and she was good.

Next up were the two young Irish fiddlers, Liz and Yvonne Kane, who played many tunes including a fitting tribute of "Thank God We're Surrounded By Water." I thought they had a different sound -- perhaps it was a higher sound -- to their fiddling than I'm used to. But they were very comfortable playing together and seemed to be adding grace notes for each other. It was an interesting technique and all their own for sure. I also enjoyed the guitar accompaniment by John Blake.

On to part two which opened with Gaelic singer, Mairi MacInnes from the Scottish isles. She sang about a sailor who told a girl -- well, you know, at the end he took her home, and there were no white mansions. I liked her voice for its strength and smoothness; and she had a fine good rhythm in her Gaelic singing. I don't think the choices could have been better than the three songstresses of the night, each the top of the line in her own specialty and I was completely entertained throughout it all.

Natalie followed Mairi, joined by keyboardist Alan Dewar (who briefly wore a blond curly wig to fit in with the theme). Natalie's performance was as usual, great and unique fiddling, an easy charm and a joking nature with the audience. She announced she was going to try two clogs followed by two jigs, a combination she hadn't done before. "And if you don't like it, pretend you do." She slowed down with "Hector the Hero," then went up and up and showed exquisite control drawing out the ends of notes. I mean really drawing out the ends of the notes, to the nth degree, for a beautiful touch.

To me the defining feature of this concert was the way the performers were intent on portraying their pride as Celts. This they did very sincerely and with the best offerings of their individual styles, and I thought this was a really important touch because it united the whole show. This was a special night of music.

- Rambles
written by Virginia MacIsaac
published 13 December 2003