Opening Gala
at Centre 200,
Sydney, NS
(8 October 2004)

There was an air of excitement in the Centre 200 as the crowd waited for the opening gala of Celtic Colours 2004 to begin. People from 47 states, 18 countries and all the provinces of Canada were in attendance. Ian MacNeil and Laruel Monroe hosted the evening and did a wonderful job introducing the acts and keeping the audience's attention between set changes with stories and information about Cape Breton and the festival.

There were many Celtic treats this evening including piping, Gaelic song, Highland dance, Cape Breton stepdancing, a bit of Celtic-influenced jazz, Scandinavian music and folk songs -- this vast array of performers gave the crowd a grand sample of what was available to see and hear during the festival week. The first treat was the Gaelic College Pipe Band, which marched into the arena to open the show. The sound of the pipes and drums filled the arena while colorful autumn leaves gently fell from the rafters.

The Forester School of Dance performed several traditional Highland dances, including a sword dance. I was particularly taken with an adorable young girl who danced with the "big" girls; she couldn't have been more than 6 years old and was already up on stage performing in front of hundreds of people. That impressed me ... and she was good, too! (I would have fallen over for sure if I tried any of the moves she did.)

Cape Breton native Jeff MacDonald sang part of "Eilean Gorm nam Beanntan Ard (Green Island of the High Mountains)" unaccompanied. His voice filled the arena with this Gaelic song in praise of Cape Breton. It stirred my soul and got me very excited about what I else I would experience during the festival.

Scotland-based Bachue's sound was a new experience for me. I was already familiar with Corrina Hewat's singing and harp playing from another band she is in, Shine; I wasn't familiar with pianist David Milligan or percussionist Donald Hay, but had heard numerous accolades about them.

Hewat fronted the band with her husky, jazzy voice and her blue cameo electroharp. I was amazed at the variety of sounds that came from it -- at times the sound was soft and delicate like I was used to Celtic harps sounding, yet an astounding amount of bass could also be produced. "Rumble Thy Belly Full" was my favorite from their set. This instrumental song showed off the great interplay between the band members that is a hallmark of their performances. I had no idea how immense just a piano, drum set and harp could sound.

As Cape Breton native Gordie Sampson took the stage, someone from the crowd yelled, "Hi, Gordie." He smiled and casually replied before playing a great set of tunes on the guitar, then moving to the piano to sing one of his better-known songs, "Paris." Many in the audience sang along. (More people are quickly learning about this song and Sampson's songwriting skills as it's being covered by Faith Hill on her most recent album, Fireflies.) His voice was strong and clear, reminding me a bit of Billy Joel.

Haugaard & Hoirup of Denmark were next and knocked my socks off. (That was a hard thing to do as I was wearing laced-up hiking boots.) Morten Alfred Hoirup has been playing guitar for over 20 years and is a master of his instrument. His playing was expressive, powerful, yet graceful. He was also a great storyteller.

Harald Haugaard loves to play the fiddle! I've never seen a person so excited to play. He couldn't sit still in his chair. He got so completely absorbed in one tune that as the piece got faster and faster, he seemed to be pulled up out of his seat by a force of nature beyond his control. Once he stood, the crowd stood up and began to clap along.

They also brought a special guest, Helene Blum. She sang a couple of traditional Danish songs and then did a spell-binding vocal chant accompanied by Haugaard's fiddle.

Haugaard & Hoirup meshed seamlessly in their playing and were a joy to watch. I found myself saying "Wow!" repeatedly during their performance. I wasn't the only one wowed as they received the night's first standing ovation.

Dougie MacLean was up next. This was his third time to Celtic Colours. I was so happy to finally get to see him live and experience first-hand the "Dougie Banter" -- MacLean is well known for his lively, interactive stage banter. From the moment he arrived on stage, it seemed like he had been friends with everyone in the audience for years. His sparkly eyes and full-faced smiles lit up the stage before he even began to sing.

He performed such songs as "Feel So Near," "Talking with my Father" and "Holding Back." Hearing these songs in person really helped me to realize how he and his music are so connected to Scotland, life and the nature all around him.

MacLean can get anyone to sing along with him ... even the most timid singers (like me). This may have had something to do with him threatening the audience -- he would not continue to sing unless everyone in the audience joined in. He even made the crowd sing without him at times. The faces and comments he made about our singing were so funny -- I laughed so hard once that it threw me into a coughing fit. He is also probably one of the few artists in the world that can tell his audience when to clap and not only get away with it, but have the crowd eagerly willing to do anything he asks. He left the stage to a standing ovation.

The Barra MacNeils were the last performers of the night. They first played a great set of tunes that got the audience tapping their feet and clapping their hands. I loved the great harmony of the whole group when they sang "Coal Town Road." The band had a very full, exciting sound that got the crowd into a happy frenzy.

Lucy MacNeil was very pregnant, but that did not stop her from playing the bodhran, nor did it affect her wonderful voice. She sang lead for a rousing Gaelic mouth music song "Pige Ruadh (The Brown Whisky Jar)" and sang "Caledonia" with MacLean when he popped back on stage. She was so excited to sing with him that she said, "I may have to go to the hospital!" Their voices harmonized beautifully together and she made it through the song without going into labor.

The Barra MacNeils left to a standing ovation after which all the performers returned for a big finale. It was a wonderful ending to a grand beginning of Celtic Colours 2004.

by Erika S. Rabideau
1 October 2005