Festival Club,
Celtic Colours 2004
at the Gaelic College,
St. Ann's, Cape Breton, NS

In years past, I've written glowing accounts of the Festival Club, the (for me) most exciting part of the week, a nightly gathering of incredible musicians and music lovers. Rather than cover ground already trodden in previous years, let me just recount a few special memories from the 2004 edition.

It wasn't until the second night at the club that I finally saw Buddy MacDonald perform. His singing is always the absolute sign that you're in Cape Breton. What, Buddy, no "Getting Dark Again"? Well, maybe tomorrow.

Dochas features an extremely talented bodhranist, blessed to share the stage with five beautiful and talented Scotswomen. He had to know how keenly he was envied by half of the men in the room.

We missed Harem Scarem at their regular concert slots, but caught a fantastic set at the club. With its engaging pop-trad blend from Scotland, the band is young, refreshingly quirky and unquestionably talented.

Pick-up bands are a yearly strength of the club, and we saw some corkers: Gordie Sampson, Haugaard & Hoirup, Anna Massie and her father, Bob Massie, on one night, the Massies with Kimberley Fraser and Sandy MacIntyre on another; Anna Massie's unexpected jam with Troy MacGillivray, Tony McManus and Daniel Lapp was rated a high point of the week by the lucky folks in attendance, as was a hump day blast by Fraser, Mac Morin, Matt Foulds and Allie Bennett.

A lot of the fun happened backstage, in the club's infamous Green Room. For instance, a sudden burst of ragtime piano one night -- a spontaneous inspiration by Flo Sampson, Gordie's talented mom -- had half the room dancing.

Besides the obvious musical benefits, the club allows for some great, up-close-and-personal interaction with the stars!

Homegrown fiddle star Kimberley Fraser, tired after a dazzling display at the Whycocomagh Gathering, made a brief appearance that night at the club -- her performance there would be delayed 'til the next night, she told me. The good news was that she would be in the studio the next day, laying down a track with Danish fiddler Harald Haugaard, with whom she shared the Whycocomagh stage. Their distinctly different styles will make for an exquisite arrangement, I am sure. And what could be better than news that Kimberley's second CD is nearing completion? Just another year to wait, the overtaxed college student said.

It's a poor soul indeed who missed Dermot Hyde's rambling tale of his Milwaukee misdaventure: the purloined whistle, his list of suspects, its eventual return (via mail to his home in Germany) and the guilty party's chatty e-mail messages and loquacious lack of apology. This circuitous conversation wasn't part of the set list during Pipeline's shows, you can be sure!

Besides musicians, the event is a grand opportunity to meet festival organizers from all over Canada, the U.S. and U.K. This year, festival reps came from as far as Denmark, Italy and Australia.

Midweek, the festival hosted a special delegation from Scotland, led by the Right Honorable Lord Provost of Glasgow Councillor Liz Cameron and Colin Hynd, festival director of Celtic Connections. The connection between the two festivals is strong, although Colours is by far the younger sibling. Among various salutations and pleasantries, officials announced the preparation of a special multimedia presentation by Dougie MacLean for the 2005 Connections event. Rural Images will employ dancers and projections to highlight peaks in Celtic, rock, choral and classical music. Hynd also noted that Unusual Suspects, a show that was founded in Glasgow, went on tour and landed this October in Cape Breton, will return to Glasgow in 2005 with a new European focus and more international cast.

"It really pumps you up as a Canadian," Bill Sadgrove, a British Columbia man who, with his wife Barb, was making his first visit to Celtic Colours. Although they'd booked advance tickets for only two performances, they were fortunate enough to learn on their first night of the Festival Club's reputation. Although weary at the time (it was, after all, close to 3 a.m., after a long day and night of music), Bill promised to e-mail me his thoughts on the event. As good as his word, he wrote: "The after-bash is much more than being about music. It is also about experiencing an exciting level of energy (which flows over you from the moment you arrive in the lineup, waiting for the doors to open), new (instant) friendships, Cape Breton hospitality and courtesy. It is about meeting with people from other countries and sharing laughs, stories, etc. And, finally, the music." After noting that they'd been lucky enough to get into several sold-out shows even without prior booking ("Cape Bretoners will not turn you away," he wrote), Bill concluded: "We have holidayed in much of the world and this is the best holiday ever. It has enhanced the feelings of pride we have in being Canadian."

Well said, Bill.

It was also at the Festival Club where my wife, Katey, and I were flooded with congratulations. Word of our recent marriage quickly spread among the festival staff, volunteers and even a fair number of musicians, and they seemed exceptionally happy to see me in the company of a beautiful young bride who also was covering Colours events for Rambles.

by Tom Knapp
10 September 2005