Festival Club,
Celtic Colours 2003
at the Gaelic College,
St. Ann's, Cape Breton, NS

Celtic Colours, the annual international music festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is fast becoming one of the world's best Celtic and folk music gatherings. Now with seven successful years under its collective belt, Celtic Colours has certainly gotten it right, exemplifying everything a major music festival could or should be.

Unlike many festivals, which provide one or two musical options or cluster their entertainments together in a relatively small space, Celtic Colours makes good use of the entire island, spotlighting its towns and venues (and the scenic drives to get to them) as much as the performers who come from just down the road and all around the Celtic/folk world. These nightly concerts are covered in much more detail on this site than can be done with any justice here, so let's move on.

The Festival Club continues to be one of the highlights of Celtic Colours week. The club, which runs nightly from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. -- or later -- at the Gaelic College follows the regularly scheduled concerts at scattered points 'round the island. As the various shows end, the roads of Cape Breton are filled with travelers on their way to the college.

The club schedule is loose and unrestricted; performers might do a snippet of their regular show, or they might mix and match with other bands and come up with something wholly unique to the moment.

On one evening this year, for instance, the Carlos Nunez band was enhanced with the addition of Lunasa piper Cillian Vallely and local fiddle icon Joe Peter MacLean. On another night, the club closed down after the powerhouse combination of fiddlers Natalie MacMaster, Wendy MacIsaac and Mairi Rankin, guitarist Fred Lavery and keyboard wiz Mac Morin.

While I missed the Barra MacNeils at their various concerts this week, I was at the club when they, along with fiddler Lisa MacArthur and guitarist Dave MacIsaac, blasted through several incredible sets. Similarly, I didn't catch the Kane Sisters in concert, but I watched them perform together -- and share a seemingly telepathic bond as they played -- at the club. Tommy Sands, the famed Irish singer-songwriter whom I saw several times during the week, performed "We'll Come Back Again," a song he wrote that day, inspired by his experience at Celtic Colours and performed exclusively at the club. There were also seven Danish students, part of a larger group visiting the festival on a government scholarship, who performed a selection of their native folk music after a somewhat zany backstage jam.

The only downside this year was an increased level of "regimentation" by planners, who sacrificed some of the club's spontaneity and, let's face it, chaos, for organization meant to guarantee that someone was always on deck to come on stage and perform. Unfortunately, the stricter handling of the club led to fewer pickup bands than we've seen in previous years. Still, the club remains the best place to be to see some of the island's freshest performances during the festival week.

Nor does the excitement end when the club closes its doors. After-hours sessions, closed to the public but open to a fortunate few, often continue in the Green Room 'til the sun comes up. Combo performances this week included a magical night featuring one-half of Newfoundland's A Crowd of Bold Sharemen, two-thirds of Ireland's Lunasa plus Irish fiddler Liz Kane, Cape Breton fiddlers Mairi Rankin and Lisa MacArthur, and more. There was less volume -- but no less enthusiasm -- when Natalie MacMaster slid behind the keyboard to pound out an accompaniment to a medley by fiddler Joe Peter MacLean.

New this year were the afternoon sessions in the pub above the Great Hall. Running from 1 to 5 p.m. on weekdays and led by local fiddlers Sandy MacIntyre and Dara Smith, these sessions were open to anyone who could fit into the small room to play, sing or listen. This is an excellent addition to the week's events -- sessions, after all, being the backbone of Cape Breton's musical culture.

One of the most amazing experiences at the club this year started after the appointed closing time. Somewhere after 3 a.m., Tim O'Brien climbed onstage with a wonderfully diverse supporting band drawn, including Mairi Rankin on fiddle, Matt Foulds on drums, Gordie Sampson on guitar, David Milligan on keyboards, Dirk Powell on bass and accordion, and Donald Hay on hand percussion. The set that followed, which ran 'til after 5, included a varied menu, from a distinctly non-Hendrix version of "Hey Joe" to Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and, of course, some lively fiddle medleys. The dance floor was jammed and the audience, like the musicians, showed no signs of tiring as the night crept towards sunrise. As the crowd onstage expanded (adding Jeremiah McDade on soprano sax, Solon McDade on bass, Francois Taillefer on hand drums and Courtney Granger on fiddle, the music swung through "Cotton-Eyed Joe," the gospel piece "See What the Lord Has Done," "Shady Grove" and a lively Cajun set. O'Brien and Powell both switched to fiddles for a Celtic set of tunes done bluegrass style before they finally called it a morning ... and headed back to the green room for more.

The Festival Club is the place to be.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 28 February 2004