Raising the Roof
at the Boisdale Fire Hall,
Boisdale, Cape Breton
(9 October 2005)

"Raising the Roof" was a bilingual experience.

The Boisdale performance began with Nuala Kennedy and Brian O'hEadra, both native Irish musicians now living in Scotland -- and both fluent in the Gaelic tongue. The pair of performers demonstrated their talents with several songs, starting with Brian's rendition of "The Beautiful Girl" -- I won't even try to spell it in Gaelic. Brian's voice is deep and rich, while Nuala joined him on choruses with a voice both high and sweet. Together, the voices mixed prettily, and the song got even more layers with his guitar and her flute.

In one of the interesting, unavoidable twists of live music, a deep-voiced man in the back who thought he knew the tune and Gaelic words was unfortunately wrong on both counts. On the other hand, he certainly knew how to project.

After a keening song lamenting the loss of a wife in expressive a cappella form, Nuala and Brian broke up the pattern with a beautiful tune set. Nuala's flute led the way, while Brian provided solid support. Next, he sang a tragic love song from Mull, while Nuala accented the piece with low whistle. Then she sang "The Fair-Haired Boy," a love song that, "as often happens in the Gaelic songs ... doesn't end well."

Although most of Brian and Nuala's set was sung in Scots Gaelic, they ended with the lively Irish Gaelic song "I Will Leave This Town," which tells of a woman who refuses the groom she is offered and goes in search of another.

Next up was Howie MacDonald, fiddler extraordinaire "from 20 minutes up the road." Joel Chiasson from Cheticamp fortified the music on keys.

After Howie's brief rant on petrol costs, these two reliable foundations of the Cape Breton tradition set to work. They kicked things off with a set of original tunes, one named for the fellah who laid the cement floor in Howie's garage.

This performance included one of those wonderful revelatory moments when the tune picks up speed and the tourists start clapping enthusiastically along -- only to realize a few bars later that everyone else is tapping their feet. Clapping, according to the typical Cape Breton mindset, is intrusive and distracting, while tapping adds a more subtle beat and is a step closer to the island's passion for footwork.

Meanwhile, Howie is also in full comic mode, and between tunes he had the audience and the ever silent Joel in stitches. But it's the tunes that matter most, and Howie always delivers -- performing without flash or any obvious form of stagecraft beyond his native wit and, of course, flawless playing. And when he's fiddling, the jokester is vanished -- he's relaxed and confident, but focused intently on his instrument.

After a brief intermission -- enlivened by a tasty array of gratis refreshments -- Liz Doherty & Friends were up to bat. Having seen Liz at Celtic Colours a few years before, I knew what to expect -- and I was completely wrong.

Well, not entirely. Liz is notorious for a sort of good-humored klutziness, and she started the set by accidentally disassembling her mic stand. Don't worry, it was only a momentary hitch.

Her friends for the show were the band: Ryan MacNeil on keyboards, Jim Woods on accordion and Damaris Woods on banjo and bouzouki. Foremost among them, however, was Dinny McLaughlin, a renowned fiddler in his own right and Liz's teacher in her youth. He came along, she admitted with a laugh, to be sure she's keeping up on her practice.

She must be, because the two proved quite a match. Still, I had to wonder if, each time her bow went in a different direction than his own, he made a mental note to correct her later.

Dinny quickly settled into the role of group leader, introducing tunes with anecdotes that kept Liz smiling -- she particularly seemed to like it when he praised her days as a student. But he also talked about his own childhood, and he touched the heart with a dear story about his own dream of playing the fiddle -- a dream that took eight years to realize. He told the story again in his wistful song, "Daddy, Will You Buy Me a Fiddle?" Later, he kept the crowd chuckling with his recitation of mishaps and misadventures from a trip to Yuba Dam.

Hey, remember that lesson on clapping along to the music? Jim confused the issue by encouraging the habit during Liz's set, and the audience graciously complied. The show also featured the Irish-style dancing of local dancer Lindsey Fitzgerald.

Liz Doherty is a phenomenal fiddler, and her abilities were never in doubt during this performance. However, she generously yielded the spotlight on this Cape Breton visit to her old teacher, and he quite obviously enjoyed the attention. Dinny is the delightful sort of character you imagine sitting at a corner table in every pub in Ireland, and his performance was a treat.

For the finale, Nuala led the group in "The Parting Glass" (not a version I've heard before) before a closing blast of tunes. All in all, it was a wholly satisfying evening of music, and the roof over the Boisdale Volunteer Fire Department was certainly raised. We're just lucky the rain didn't come in!

by Tom Knapp
29 October 2005