Kelly's Dream
at the Boularderie School,
Ross Ferry, NS
(13 October 2003)

Thick fog on Kelly's Mountain (and an excellent maple-glazed salmon at the Lobster Galley outside St. Ann's) nearly kept me from the opening of Kelly's Dream. It was Columbus Day back home, Thanksgiving here in Canada, and people once again packed the venue -- this time, the nice acoustics of the Boularderie School auditorium.

First up was homegrown talent Kimberley Fraser. One of the island's hottest -- and youngest -- rising stars, the Sydney Mines native deftly showed the crowd just how powerful a Cape Breton fiddle can be. Swaying gently in time with the stately march that opened her performance, Fraser quickly cut loose with an infectiously peppy strathspey and reel set.

Fraser isn't a forceful personality by any means -- the shy-seeming young woman played with her eyes mostly downcast, locked on her fingerboard, or exchanging grins with guitarist Allie Bennett and keyboardist Joel Chiasson. But Fraser, who seemed even more bashful when she spoke to the audience, let her fiddle speak volumes for her -- and quite eloquently, too!

After a jammin' set of jigs, Fraser silently switched to keyboard to prove that her gifts extend beyond a single instrument. Again, her eyes were riveted to her hands, but the tunes just rolled along (with the aid of some "funky jazz chords" she's been learning in college). Then she resumed center stage for another set on the fiddle, this time a group of tunes learned from her former instructor, Sandy MacIntyre. "One thing I don't learn from Sandy is the names of tunes," she admitted with a laugh.

Poised, graceful and undeniably gifted, Fraser needs only to learn to wear a spotlight more boldly to become headliner material in her own right. There is no question she has all the talent she needs. She ended her portion of the show with "a little big blast of tunes," including the popular "Tullochgorum" and "Mason's Apron." Fraser earned a well-deserved standing ovation for her phenomenal talent.

It's always surprising just how international the audiences at Celtic Colours have become. After Fraser's set, the emcee "randomly" opened a world atlas and asked who in the room was from Lancaster County, Pa. -- I was startled to learn I wasn't the only one.

Next up was Tim O'Brien, a bluegrass singer and string player from Wheeling, W.Va. Irish guitarist John Doyle (now living in North Carolina) provided support. After a brief, laidback greeting, the pair launched into their first fiddle-driven set without preamble, facing each other to play -- O'Brien barely moving beyond his hands and arms, Doyle flailing like a rubber-jointed scarecrow. Differences in mobility aside, however, the two proved well-matched from start to finish.

Besides a mix of Americana and Celtic tunes, the show featured several memorable story-songs, ranging in topic from the hardships of a mining life to death in the Civil War and at Little Bighorn. The solo gospel number "Working on a Building" blended O'Brien's voice and crying fiddle beautifully. A pair of groaner jokes later, O'Brien and Doyle continued running through songs including "I've Endured," "On the Outside Looking In" and "It's Another Day." At times, O'Brien switched to mandolin (which he claimed is an Italian word meaning "out of tune") for accompaniment. He ended his excellent set with "Raleigh & Spencer," a lickety-split song from the American Civil War with some intricate dueling between mandolin and guitar.

The music moved overseas for the third act, Ireland's fiery band Lunasa.

Celtic Colours doesn't stint on talent when hiring acts, and in Lunasa they got one of Ireland's finest instrumental ensembles. The band features Kev Crawford on flutes, whistles and bodhran, Sean Smyth on fiddle and whistle, Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes, Donough Hennessy on guitar and Trevor Hutchinson on bass. Each is a master of his craft, and a live show by Lunasa is a wonder to behold -- these lads have created their own definition of Irish music.

The tightly knit performance was far too polished and cleverly arranged to be mistaken for an informal session band, yet they retain the session's relaxed atmosphere and informal banter, with Crawford playing the jocular ringmaster. Their set ran the gamut of jigs ("Serene Elizabeth Kelly's," "Jimmy Ward's") and reels ("The Wedding Reel," "Good Morning Nightcap," "The Malbay Shuffle," "Not Safe with a Razor," "The Almost Reel"), plus a slow, "sappy and romantic" waltz written by Hennessy for his fiancee, Pauline Scanlon (who performed at the 2002 Celtic Colours festival with the Sharon Shannon Band).

Another set stripped the band down to its roots (Smyth, Hennessy and Hutchinson), when the fledgling trio was formed to attract girls but hadn't yet realized, Crawford explained, that a flute and pipe player are both needed for the task. Well, their social skills may need polishing, but they still slammed out a great sound even without the two winds. Vallely also stole the spotlight for a slow solo pipe air, then he and Crawford picked the pace up again until the others marched back onstage to round out the set with "The Red Bee" and "The Miller of Drohan."

"We head home tomorrow," Crawford told the crowd. "We'll be sorry boys, I can tell you." The band bid farewell with a final set of reels, "Dr. Gilbert/Donegal Reel/The Long Acre," brilliantly closing a truly electric show.

The traditional Colours finale was still to come, of course. O'Brien and Doyle sang a folked-up version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" with the aid of several Lunasa musicians, then the full crowd gathered for a set of "organized chaos -- see you at the other end!" Chaos, perhaps, but it sounded pretty well rehearsed on this end. And so ended another crazy night of music in Cape Breton. And the week's still young!

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 15 November 2003