The Whycocomagh Gathering
at Whycocomagh Education Centre,
Whycocomagh, Cape Breton
(9 October 2004)

It was a grueling haul from Pennsylvania, a nearly nonstop drive with only a few hours for sleep just over the border in New Brunswick (where we forgot to set our clocks ahead to Atlantic time). My wife and I pulled into Baddeck with barely a moment to drop off our bags before rushing back down Highway 105 to the Whycocomagh Gathering, a yearly tradition at Celtic Colours and often my first event in the concert series.

What a disappointment! No, silly readers, not the music -- our timing was off just enough to cost us the first few minutes of Kimberley Fraser's opening performance.

Kimberley dazzled the crowd on both fiddle and piano, solo and working with a pair of accompanying players, fellow lefty Pat Gillis on guitar and Tracey Dares on piano. For one so young -- newly turned 21, I believe -- she showed the same amazing finesse that has made her a local favorite for several years running. It's also a pleasure to see Kimberley bursting from the shell of bashfulness that was much more evident in years prior. Poised and stylish, Kimberley could easily play her way into international stardom, one of Cape Breton's great musical gifts to the world.

The tireless set that ended Kimberley's performance for the evening -- including a flawless "Tullochgorum" -- was a generous blast of tunes in the best Cape Breton tradition. Then, not quite finished after all, she returned for a final set accompanying young local dancer Stephanie MacDonald.

Next up was a Danish treat, the instrumental duo Haugaard & Hoirup. The animated pair of musicians launched the next portion of the show with a folky-baroque flair drawn from the climes of northern Europe and all around the world.

Their tempos and techniques are distinctly different from the styles more common in Cape Breton and other Celtic lands. The continental sound has hints of klezmer, Appalachia and other influences in a mixed bag of music. In a different setting, fiddler Harald Haugaard and guitarist Morten Alfred Hoirup would have had throngs of people up and dancing; in Whycocomagh, the audience remained seated and focused, feet tapping in unison and riotous applause giving voice to their enthusiasm for tunes such as "Sorrow and Happiness" and "The Great-Grandmother" (the latter of which was made richer by Morten's rambling story about a child's understanding of mortality -- and its ramifications at his school).

Both musicians served as a perfect complement to the other. Harald's playing made sweeping changes from slow and sultry, bow chuckling over the strings, to frantic expressions of folk melodies. Morten drove the music with a combination of strong rhythms and lilting riffs. On some pieces, their musical interaction was more like a conversation than composition.

The duo was joined at midpoint by their angel-voiced countrywoman, Helene Blum. A gorgeous singer in her native language, she sometimes used her voice as a foil, wordlessly crossing blades with Harald's dancing strings.

"Wow," summed up Whycocomagh emcee Burton MacIntyre's opinion of the show. He stressed the importance of the festival's constant exchange of musical cultures, bringing a diverse blend of music together on Cape Breton stages.

After a brief intermission, legendary Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean took the stage. Noting that it was the middle of the night back home in Scotland, he apologized for being "a bit red about the eyes."

The set began with "Holding Back," but Dougie didn't take his own advice. For the next hour, a man and guitar worked together to paint detailed pictures of life in a big shift from the largely instrumental first half.

The rich-voiced singer got extremely personal with "Talking with My Father," with equally rich and sentimental lyrics. Like Cape Breton, Dougie said, Scotland has a living musical culture, where "music isn't a passive thing" and people don't just appreciate music, they participate in it. Certainly, Dougie seemed to thoroughly enjoy hearing his Cape Breton audience participate in Saturday's show, singing beautifully along with the choruses of several songs.

Dougie strapped on a harmonica -- "more for myself than for you guys" -- for the sing-along "I Feel So Near." Dylan is an obvious influence on MacLean's harmonica style; OK, so he maybe isn't on Dylan's level, but it took only one hint for Dougie to get an ovation from the crowd for his harmonica solo. The show progressed through "Broken Wings" and the new "Seventh Sea"; Dougie blamed an unplanned midstream key change on jet lag. He ended the show with "Not Lie Down."

For the Whycocomagh finale, Dougie and Helene joined forces on "Ready for the Storm." It was a gorgeous new version of a MacLean standard, and I for one would love to see these two record it. Then, Dougie left the stage to Blum, Haugaard and Hoirup, Fraser and Dares, whose tune set drew MacDonald and MacIntyre to the stage for a bit more dancing.

We arrived at Whycocomagh exhausted from the journey. We left invigorated by three hours of amazing music and the promise of an incredible week ahead of us. Now, it's time for the Festival Club for even more fun!

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 23 October 2004

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