Bards & Ballads
at the Culture & Heritage Centre,
Wagmatcook, NS
(14 October 2003)

The soul of Cape Breton music, for me, is instrumental -- its heart, the fiddle. But I can still be easily swept away by a good singer-songwriter, and Cape Breton has a powerful tradition in that vein.

That was the focus of Bards & Ballads, my Tuesday evening concert of choice at Celtic Colours. The show, like the festival, takes a global perspective of music, and its performers hail from widely divergent backgrounds.

For the first half of the show, Nova Scotia's Dave Gunning shared the stage with American bluegrass artist Tim O'Brien and Welsh singer-harper Sian James.

O'Brien, the lineup's Nashville connection, got things moving with "Less and Less," a song about luggage inspired after a late-night session in Dublin when he realized that "my suitcase was bigger than my room." James, who brought her gorgeous voice and harp from an unpronouncable town in Wales, was next with "Pure of Heart," a song sung in Welsh that needed no translation to express its tale of love and woe. Then Gunning, from Pictou County, sang "Here She Comes a'Running," a country-Celtic song for which he filmed a video that is "a cross between Little House on the Prairie and Monty Python." The lively song had the bonus of an impromptu accompaniment on O'Brien's mandolin.

While introducing his next song, O'Brien noted that traditional music is not a stagnant art form. "Tradition is about how things improve," he said. "We keep the good stuff and try to make things better for the next generation. We try to improve things ... and we add to the tradition." While explaining how his song, "Another Day," was inspired by the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and is tied into attitudes about death, O'Brien quoted Crazy Horse -- "Today is a good day to die." -- just as his microphone delivered an audible electrical shock. The audience, egged on by O'Brien's deadpan wit, howled.

O'Brien's easygoing manner and casual speech makes him seem immediately at home wherever he is, and his anecdotes are absorbing and memorable. He and the other singers added a new dimension to the experience by sharing the stories that sparked the creation or aided in the development of their songs; that additional layer of information enhances both the enjoyment and the understanding.

James took us all back to Wales with "Cariad Cyntaf," a rare Welsh song in that it features "two people who fall in love and stay in love and live happily ever after," she said. Most Welsh songs are about romance gone bad, she said -- "I don't know how we've managed to sustain ourselves as a nation." Certainly, James exhibited an enchantingly delicate touch on the harp as she sang in her evocative native tongue.

Gunning then lifted a story from his local lore with "The Prince of Pictou," a surprisingly touching song about a man believed to have been King George IV's illegitimate son in exile. It's a sad song about a moneyed drunk with a secret, to which O'Brien added a nice fiddle backdrop. O'Brien followed through with a song inspired by a pair of black high-top Converse All-Stars, a pair of sneakers he'd received as a gift. (The song had special poignance for me, since I was in the audience wearing the low-top variety of that very same brand.) "These songs are all traditional no matter how you look at it," O'Brien said.

The first half ended with "Cyfri'r Geifr," or "Counting the Goats," a tongue-twister James said developed from the Welsh Christmas party tradition. James, who was returning home to Wales the next morning, sang the trippingly expansive song in verses that ran slow and fast, slow and faster, slow and faster still.

The second half of Bards & Ballads opened with a new lineup: Cape Breton's Gordie Sampson, Scotland's Karen Polwart and Ireland's Tommy Sands. Sampson, from Big Pond, kicked things off with his socially conscious song "Waves." Then Polwart, formerly with the Battlefield Band and now fronting Malinky, sang the metaphor-laden song "Water Lily." "A great deal of the songs (in the Scottish tradition) aren't too cheerful," she conceded. Sands was a little more lively, despite a touch of traveler's laryngitis, with "When the Boys Come Rolling Home," leading the crowd in a good, old-fashioned sing-along.

Sampson took the audience to "Paris" with a story-song about a visit to France in turbulent times. "I usually play this on piano, I'll try it on guitar," he said. Polwart next sang a love song featuring an Italian pudding; "John C. Clarke" is a surprisingly sweet, if fumbling romance. "I have to applaud you," Sampson told her, "for using the word 'tiramisu' in a song."

Sands, warm and funny, gripped the audience's heart with one of his best-known songs, "There Were Roses," which puts a very personal face on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. "The music was never meant to make you sad," he said. "It was meant to take the sadness out of you and leave space for you to get on with the dance of life." Even so, the chilling song -- to which Polwart and Sampson added gorgeous harmonies -- earned extended applause and left a few damp eyes in the room.

A previous Celtic Colours festival-induced hangover inspired "Grandpa's Remedy," and Sampson's fun song neatly lifted the mood. Polwart ended her portion of the show with "Follow the Heron Home," an a cappella song inspired by her experiences at the Shetland Folk Festival. Then Sands closed the second half on a note of hope with one of his greatest songs of peace, "Down By the Lagan Side," a song that became particularly meaningful during the Good Friday Agreement talks in Northern Ireland.

For the finale, all six singers crowded the stage for "Wild Mountain Thyme." The audience raised the rafters on the chorus, and the song featured one verse in Welsh, a fiddle solo by O'Brien and a special Celtic Colours lyric penned by Sands.

It's safe to say everyone left Wagmatcook with a song in their hearts Tuesday night. Six singers from around the world made the evening a very memorable chapter in the festival week.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 8 November 2003