The Hills are Alive
at St. Peter's Church,
Ingonish, NS
(15 October 2003)

Wednesday night found me heading over Smokey Mountain into the lip of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. St. Peter's Church, outside Ingonish, was the setting for The Hills are Alive, and it didn't take long for the musicians assembled there to set name to action.

Tommy Sands opened the night with a very appropriate song, "Let the Circle be Wide Round the Fireside," which celebrates the gathering of friends old and new. His gentle Irish voice resonated in the sanctuary as the a cappella song readied the crowd for a performance rich in narrative and meaning. Sands' songs embrace love, separation, peace and, of course, wit. "I think humor's a very serious thing. It's also a sacred thing," he said, prefacing a funny song about roving. "It's not a real song at all," he confided. "It's only made up, as so many of them are."

Many of his songs involve coming up with the right words to go with a meaning, Sands added. This one had him "looking for meanings to go with the words." Another deeply meaningful song described the sad day he took his mother to a nursing home. A lament on the whistle and a dramatic reading of Seamus Heaney's poem "Follower" preceded the song. A story about a cat, a dog and kittens later, Sands dedicated his popular composition "Down By the Lagan Side" to the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland.

Arriving on stage all in giggles, Brenda Stubbert and Stephanie Wills took turns on fiddle and piano. Stubbert led off on fiddle with a spirited jig set, then a slow, moving air ("The Longest Night") written after the 1998 Swiss Air airplane crash in Peggy's Cove. Stubbert jokingly said she was nervous, then proved the lie with a long and flawless set of strathspeys and reels. "Aren't we two characters? Yes, we are," she told the audience. "But we're having fun, that's the main thing."

The pair switched instruments and proved themselves equally gifted on the other side. Then it was time for a break, letting the audience rest up for an energized set by Bohola.

Bohola, from the "small Irish town of Chicago," served up a driving, potent, dynamic second half with sets that seemed to wind up and just keep going, and going, and going. Once they get started, these musicians must have some deep-rooted moral imperative not to stop. Tempos and dynamics fly by, the only constants being variety and impeccable musicianship.

The band is Sean Cleland on fiddle, Jimmy Keane on accordion and backing vocals, Pat Broaders on bouzouki and vocals, and the most recent addition, Kat Eggleston on guitar and vocals.

The show included tune sets, including "Ships in Full Sail/The Bohola Jig/Gentleman's Heart to the Ladies." There were also songs wrapped in tunes; Ewan MacColl's "Moving-On Song" was preceded by "Johnny Doherty's March" and followed by a thrilling medley. Bohola had the tunes by the tail and just weren't letting go. Every time I thought they were building to a big finish, they fooled me -- until the final climax 25-30 minutes later. Don't look for names of all those tunes, however: "There were a bunch of things we played," Eggleston said. "We got kind of wound up."

The music was so good, I'll forgive Broaders the bad jokes. There were only a few of them, after all.

The final set, built around a song of faithfulness called "Storms," was a driving sound was a tangible force, a rocketship of pure music that left the audience breathless by the end. Fortunately, Bohola responded to the cheering crowd and returned to the stage for one more blast, with Stubbert and Wills joining them for a trilogy of Michael Coleman tunes. Sands also came back to lead the crowd in "Home Away from Home" to close the show.

I've listened to a pre-Eggleston Bohola recording -- I don't know if its her influence or just the band's stage attitude, but the disc doesn't do them justice. Let's hope for a live recording soon!

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 22 November 2003