Celtic Connections
at Strathspey Place,
Mabou, Cape Breton
(12 October 2005)

Karen & Helene started the show with a Christmas song. Since no one in the audience at Strathspey Place spoke a Scandinavian language, it didn't much matter.

What did matter was the pair of beautifully pure, crystal clear voices that shared Danish a cappella songs with an appreciative audience at "Celtic Connections," the Wednesday evening show at the exceptional venue in Mabou.

"All of these songs are actually dance tunes," Karen Mose informed us. "So we've made room up on the stage if anyone wants to dance." (No one did.)

But oh, those voices! Singing without any ornamentation other than that which came through their own lips, the young women sang and lilted through a too-short set. Many of the songs featured wordless ulalations with wonderful countermelodies, syllables tripping lightly up and down in delicate patterns of sound. In one song, they used their voices to imitate the distinctive sound of a hardanger fiddle.

Helene Blum said they used to joke with their audiences that their fiddles had been stolen and only their voices were left. But the story so horrified a previous Cape Breton audience, she said, they dispensed with the fib. "We don't really know how to play the fiddle," she confessed. (On the contrary, Helene told me privately later, she actually does know how to play the fiddle, but she's never had one stolen.)

The songs told stories, such as a girl who ponders a lovely apple only to find a worm within -- and ponders the similarity to the men in her life, and a girl who promises her affections to more than the usual number of men.

And Karen and Helene sang eagerly, gazing in each other's eyes as much as they looked at the crowd.

After a particularly sorrowful song about the death of a dear love, the pair repented the mood they'd created. "We can't leave you like this," Karen vowed, so they wrapped up their set with a Swedish dance song about a drunken cuckoo. It certainly perked things up, and left everyone in fine spirits for the next act.

Next up was the Old Blind Dogs, a popular group from Scotland. Featuring a mix of fiddle, pipes, whistles, guitar, harmonica, bouzouki, electric bass, percussion and vocals, the band spiked its arrangements with drone-like chants, unusual rhythms and, at times, a frantic push to the finish line.

The set included full-tilt pipe and fiddle blitzes, closing with a "wild, hairy, fist-shaking strathspey" and tune set with a mystical layer of vocal jogging. Old and blind they may be, but these dogs can run.

After intermission, the Brock Maguire Band made its first appearance in Cape Breton. The award-winning foursome features the musical talents of Moving Cloud founders Paul Brock on accordion/melodeon and Manus McGuire on fiddle, plus Enda Scahill on banjo and Denis Carey on piano.

Band members seemed unaware an audience was even in the room with them when they performed, playing with all eyes fixed downward. But between sets, they spun warm and friendly tales; Manus said his Sligo style of fiddling was influenced by the Cape Breton Symphony when he heard them in his youth. The band introduced an instrumental version of "I'll Tell Me Ma" by noting Paul learned it as a French polka and played it for some time before learning its origin as an Irish children's song.

The set had a relaxed pace, ambling along and allowing plenty of room for ornamentation. The show was a sterling example of how the banjo, once the instrument of choice for bluegrass and Appalachian musicians, has been wholly adopted into the Irish fold -- much as the guitar and bouzouki were in the mid- to late 20th century. In this case, Enda's banjo helped transform a very good Irish dance band into an exceptional one.

Paul ended the set by urging the Cape Breton crowd to continue to support and preserve its music tradition. There's no doubt there, as long as bands like the Barra MacNeils are on the scene.

The MacNeils, a family band, has grown to a full complement of seven -- six of whom are siblings -- with the addition of Ryan and Boyd to the lineup. Older sibs Kyle, Sheumas, Stewart and Lucy round out the band, along with the only non-MacNeil, Jamie Gatti on guitar and bass.

The Barras ripped through tune sets and songs that are very familiar to local audiences. One perpetual favorite is "Coal Town Road," which Kyle belted out with power. Equally thrilling was a demonstration of dance by Lucy, followed by Stewart, then Ryan and Boyd. Lucy also led the crowd with a grand bodhran solo and some funky Gaelic singing before closing down the house with a full-stage finale.

by Tom Knapp
26 November 2005