Whycocomagh Gathering
at the Whycocomagh Education Centre,
Whycocomagh, Cape Breton
(8 October 2005)

Our arrival in Cape Breton was heralded this year by thick grey clouds and torrential downpours, a bout of nasty weather that followed us from the Maine border, across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and settled in for a spell.

But the swollen skies and puddled streets couldn't dampen day two of Celtic Colours, our first night on the island for a week's splendid music.

Award-winning singer-songwriter David Francy got things going with a selection of his expressive stories and songs. Coupled with singer-guitarist Shane Simpson, Francey brought the eager Whycocomagh crowd into his world with songs including "Tonight in My Dreams" (which Francey described as "the one happy song in the set") and "Torn Screen Door," which laments the loss of a viable farm and lifestyle to debt.

Next up, the formidable MacGillivray clan -- talented siblings Kendra, Sabra and Troy -- demonstrated the power of Nova Scotia traditions. Beginning their set with Kendra on fiddle, Troy on keyboard and Sabra on bodhran, they led the audience through an animated, lively, wonderful program.

Kendra, center stage, is a firecracker when she plays, legs pumping madly with the beat. Sharing in the family tradition, she first introduced a polka set learned from her grandfather, who first recorded it in the 1930s. Next, Troy -- with a flurry of fingertips -- played the "Mary Queen of Scots" set on keyboards; the set was previously recorded on fiddle on his latest CD, but built to an amazing climax in this arrangement.

Sabra leapt to her feet and, with fellow dancer Kelly MacArthur, showed how Cape Breton footwork looks with practiced professionals in the tap shoes. Arms relaxed and swaying, legs loose and precise in their movements, backs and shoulders in a perfect line, long ponytails bobbing in time and grinning broadly, the two young women moved in perfect unison, tirelessly beating out a mighty rhythm as Troy and Kendra pounded out the melody. Then, Sabra (only slightly winded) took over the keyboard (her first public performance on the instruments, her siblings quickly pointed out to Sabra's embarrassment) while Kendra and Troy worked into a perfectly matched fiddle duet of strathspeys and reels -- Kendra looking completely relaxed, the music an effortless extension of her arms, while the equally gifted Troy played with a look of focused concentration and, for a brief portion of the set, showed his own skill at dancing.

For the final set, the MacGillivrays returned to their original positions and launched into a stately melody, building -- as, of course, it must -- into a fast, heel-pounding set. Kendra's smile was infectious as she (and her newly styled, slightly reddened hair) bounced in time, Troy matched her beat for beat on the keys and Sabra again demonstrated why she is one of the island's leading proponents of the dance. Their standing ovation was well earned.

And the energy level kept building. After a brief intermission, the twang of a jaw harp signaled the beginning of Le Vent du Nord's display of Quebecois music. The French-Celtic connection was full of frantic energy, a high-energy and gravity-defying parade of tunes and songs about love, both comic and tragic. The lyrics -- often presented a cappella, in a strong four-part vocal arrangement or as a call-and-response -- were expressive even in French (a language I sadly do not understand).

And let's not forget the fantastic foot percussion that punctuated the music, primarily the work of fiddler Olivier Demers who demonstrated freakish levels of energy as he played. And of course there's Benoit Bourque, a giant scarecrow of a man, all smiles and footwork as he showed off his own brand of stepdancing and maybe even an extra joint or two in each leg. Frankly, I'd hate to be on stage after that, if for no other reason than the fear that every single supporting nail must have been shaken loose under the foot-stomping barrage.

We looked to Nicholas Boulerice for a lesson in the power, majesty and versatility of the hurdy-gurdy, "the most beautiful of all instruments." And then Benoit leapt from the stage to lead the audience in an arm-circling, pinky-linking dance that snaked through the seated crowd.

For the finale, Kendra and Troy got things rolling with a strathspey, tossed it to Francey for a bit of "Rantin' Roarin' Willie" and then joined the full ensemble for a fierce set of jigs and reels, featuring additional dancing by Sabra and Benoit, plus a surprise from emcee Burton MacIntyre, a local institution in dance, when he very nearly lost his kilt (twice) while partnering with Lt. Gov. Myra Freeman. Burton took it all in good humor, of course, blaming a recent diet for the garment's looseness.

The Whycocomagh crowd was in high spirits as everyone filed from the building and back into the rain. The week was just begun, and there was plenty of music still to come.

by Tom Knapp
22 October 2005