Heavenly Voices
at Holy Redeemer Church,
Whitney Pier, NS
(16 October 2003)

The crying shame of Celtic Colours is the number of excellent performances you must miss. With so many great choices scattered across the island each evening and only one pair of ears to deploy, there are some very hard choices to make during the week-long event.

But when I learned that Men of the Deeps, Cape Breton's coal-mining chorus, were to give but one performance during the festival this year, my destination for that evening was set in stone: the Holy Redeemer Church in Whitney Pier, a small city wrapped in the larger embrace of Sydney. Men of the Deeps, formed more than 30 years ago and composed solely of working and retired miners, has never before appeared at the seven-year-old festival, so this was a special occasion indeed!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the Men took the stage in the acoustically rich sanctuary, two other groups made beautiful music of their own.

First was Ferintosh, a 2-year-old trio named for a 200-year-old brand of whisky. The trio blends Celtic and baroque music styles, joining the fiddle (David Greenberg of Halifax) to the harp (Kim Robertson of Milwaukee) and the cello (Abby Newton of New York).

Dipping into a tradition in which musicians often played for royals and peasants alike, they merged the disparate styles into a unique synthesis of courtly and common. Ferintosh mines a library of music that is largely untapped by modern performers. For their first set of tunes, they were joined by local dancer Sabra MacGillivray, whose precise and elegant Scottish dancing added a ballet-like quality to the moment.

MacGillivray was as much a focus of the show as the band, adding a lovely visual aspect to the performance. During the second set, she reappeared bearing a lantern and wearing a dark cloak to dance to the trio's deep, vibrant tones. She vanished just as the stately pace increased, returning moments later, sans cloak and lantern, for a more traditional display of Cape Breton tap and stepdancing, inspiring the audience to clap along with the music for the first time of the evening.

Obviously a CD of this band's music, excellent though it is, is not sufficient; they need to produce a DVD that includes MacGillivray's vital contributions for the total experience.

Musically, the band showed incredible finesse and diversity. Tunes included pieces from the collection of Capt. Simon Fraser, as well as a very baroque-sounding sonata for violin and cello that still had elements of a folk dance ingrained in the music. Another piece, featuring the clear, bell-like tones of Robertson's Gaelic harp, summoned MacGillivray back for a flowing dance of mixed Scottish and ballerina influences.

Alas, the music so mesmerized one family that the parents failed to remove their screaming child from the room. Fortunately for the child -- and unfortunately for the rest of us -- the acoustics were also excellent for projecting cries, kicks and wails.

The final mixed set from Ferintosh, a perfect encapsulization of the band's varied styles, also ended with more fast-stepping foot percussion from MacGillivray. This trio -- or rather, quartet -- made a great first impression and got Thursday's lineup off to a quality start.

Bachue, a Scottish trio, adds a jazz perspective to traditional music. The band includes Corrina Hewat on electroharp and vocals, David Milligan on keyboards and Donald Hay on percussion. (Hewat and Milligan have performed at Celtic Colours before, first as a duo in 1999 and individually in the years since.)

The band has a fresh sound, crossing musical boundaries in a new and exciting way. After an opening pair of souped-up jigs, Hewat sang "In My Prime," a melancholy piece with a hollow sound of tangible misery that seemed to fill the room long after she stopped singing. A couple more tunes led to "O Mirk, Mirk is This Midnight Hour," a traditional Scottish song by famed bard Robert Burns. This was a moody, jazzy interpretation Burns surely never intended, but I've no doubt he'd have approved. A final blast of jigs ended the first half of the show.

After a brief intermission, it was time for the main event of the evening. The Men of the Deeps tramped into the darkened church, lighting the way with their headlamps.

Led by director Jack O'Donnell, the only non-miner in the group, 21 men made a heavenly sound born of hard work and hardship. The songs, sometimes featuring solo vocalists and supported by guitar, bass, banjo and harmonica, included songs new and old from the mining traditions of Cape Breton, the United States, England, Ireland and Scotland. There were songs of hope and camaraderie, songs of immigration and love of place. There were stories and jokes. There were also songs commemorating lives lost in mine accidents, and there's no question the Men touched their audience deeply with the heartfelt songs.

The Men of the Deeps was created as a musical force in 1966 as part of Canada's centennial celebration and to help mark the creation of the Miner's Museum. By the time this evening's concert was over, Men of the Deeps had received four standing ovations and were kept on stage for an encore.

Songs in Thursday's program included "Oh Lord, Have Mercy on a Miner's Soul," "Dust in the Air," "Coal by the Sea," "Immigrant Eyes," "Song for the Mira," "Coal Town Road," "Their Lights Will Shine" and the ever-popular "Working Man." "Billy, Come With Me," featuring soloist and founding member Bob Roper, was a peak moment of the show, stirring dread and raising goosebumps with the chilling words and haunting presentation.

It took seven years to get this groundbreaking chorus to perform at Celtic Colours. I hope it doesn't take that long to bring them back! Although a fan of their CDs for years, I can honestly say the excellent recordings don't do them justice -- the Men of the Deeps must be experienced live.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 1 November 2003