Islanders All
at Brookshaven Hall,
Prime Brook, NS
(17 October 2003)

I've written much about Buddy MacDonald over my years at Celtic Colours; I'm not sure how many more superlatives I can pile on his head before his back bends under the weight, rendering him unable to play. And I've already reported this week on Buddy's performance with John Ferguson, which I enjoyed not only at Whycocomagh but also most nights at the Festival Club (usually in the company of guitarist Fred Lavery).

So let's just say part one of Islanders All, the Friday night show at the Brookshaven Hall in Prime Brook, was great, and move on.

Cynthia MacLeod was next, and the Prince Edward Islander was raring to go. Coupled with Troy MacGillivray, an excellent local musician, on keyboards, Cynthia cut loose with a dazzling array of tunes.

Small in size but huge in talent, the animated young fiddler shared an infectious grin along with the music. Seated but never still, her long hair swaying in time with the music, Cynthia charged through several sets with precision and enthusiasm. Cape Breton may be better known in the Maritimes for its fiddlers, but Cynthia certainly proves that PEI has something to say. She's absolutely brilliant, and constantly bursting with good cheer. A brief display of stepdancing added to the fun.

Even more astonishing was the revelation that Cynthia and Troy had little to no time to rehearse for the show. Despite the handicap, the two played together like old pros, and they alone were well worth the drive.

Flook took over the small stage for the second half of the show. Hailing from England and Ireland, the four musicians drove the music for an incredible series of flute- and whistle-driven tunes.

The band is Brian Finnegan and Sarah Allen on flutes and whistles, Ed Boyd on guitar and John Joe Kelly on bodhran. All four are highly skilled individuals, pushing their instruments to the limit.

Certainly worth mentioning is Sarah's highly percussive style of flute playing. There's definitely a bit of Ian Anderson influence here, even to the one-legged crane-like pose, but she takes it to a sharply punctuated level I've never seen or heard before. Throughout the show, there was some exceptional interplay and trade-off between the two wind players.

Brian, introducing the international medley "Flutopia," noted there are a variety of tempos and time signatures in the set drawing from French, Spanish, Hungarian and Irish roots. He warned the audience that dancing to the medley would be difficult, "but if you'd like to try it, it'd really make us laugh." The "Granny" set included a "jolly little" Sarah-penned tune inspired by her flat neighbors and an excess of pink paint. For the "Blue Ball" jig, the band employed the audience in lieu of the required trombone.

The Flook show packed a powerful punch, and John Joe is a veritable wizard with his deep-bellied bodhran. His playing seems effortless, using a stick that appears too thin and insubstantial to produce that kind of sound. The wind players were phenomenal, often playing with eyes locked together as they riffed and followed each other through complex patterns of music.

Sarah strapped on an accordion for a slow set that was nearly derailed when Brian got a repeating case of laughter, which was inexplicably tied to John Joe's purplish towel and the memory of an unusual undergarment discovered while shopping in a Cape Breton shop that afternoon.

"Wrong Foot Forward," another Sarah original piece named before our very eyes, and "The Dark Reel" had their world premiere at Celtic Colours; the set was first attempted by the band backstage before the show. Formal rehearsals, Flook members conceded, are an ill-advised luxury. Brian described "Pressed for Time" as a "frantic reel," and noted that Cape Breton "reminds me of Donegal -- apart from the trees ... and the accents ... and the beer ... and things like that."

The final reel featured an amazing drum solo, with John Joe casually summoning a dizzying variety of percussive sounds from his drum. I'm not entirely sure he still remembered the audience watching his every move as he played.

The finale brought everyone back on stage, with Buddy getting things started with a snippet of his popular song, "Getting Dark Again," followed by fiddle solos by John and Cynthia, a blast of music by Flook, a keyboard solo by Troy and a concluding group effort.

It was, unfortunately, a surprisingly empty hall, with maybe half of the seats filled. Since Prime Brook lies on the outskirts of Sydney, you can't really blame its remoteness for the scarcity of a crowd. Perhaps there was some oversaturation of Buddy and John, who did similar shows (albeit memorable ones) all week long. Also, word apparently spread quickly Friday about the surprising temper flare-up of Flook's drummer at the previous night's Festival Club; perhaps that incident left a bad taste in the mouths of friendly Cape Bretoners. That left only Cynthia as the evening's strong draw and, while excellent, she faced some stiff competition among the lineup of other festival performances that evening.

There could be plenty of other reasons for the empty seats in Prime Brook that evening. Suffice it to say, anyone who stayed away missed a fine display of musicianship all around.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 20 December 2003