Festival Club
A rambling by Tom Knapp

Somehow, in the storm of activity that fills your time at Celtic Colours, I never made it to the Festival Club in time to hear Buddy MacDonald do his opening set. From my very first visit to Cape Breton's renowned international festival, Buddy has been an integral part of the experience. But in 2005, he wasn't featured in any of the concerts I attended and I missed all but a few end-of-set fragments at the nightly club.

It was a great loss, and I missed his singing a lot during the week. Fortunately, he sometimes sat in with other performers, giving me a small taste to tide me over, and the overall musical excellence of the Festival Club's other performers made it impossible to mourn for long.

Festival Club is the musical heart of Celtic Colours. While the festival offers numerous concert offerings each day at venues all over the island, you can always count on an amazing array of performers at the club, which runs nightly from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Backstage, in the green room, even more incredible jam sessions crop up at a moment's notice, so there is never a lack of entertainment.

Kudos must go to Kelly Peck, who ran herd over the club's lineup this year and kept an endless rotation of music on stage. If they played anywhere on the island during festival week, chances are excellent they appeared at the club. And chances are pretty good you'll see some things you'd never see at a regular concert.

On Saturday, our first night at the Festival Club this year, Le Vent du Nord's Benoit Bourque jumped from the stage, grabbed a dance partner from the audience and danced her into a frenzy before climbing back on stage, not even breathing hard. Of course, the realization as the band performs is that, when the Quebecois quartet is playing, everyone is smiling, everyone is moving. Still, Benoit had to be feeling it when the guitarist broke a string in the band's final set, but he gamely shifted chairs out of his way and danced yet again to fill the gap.

Meanwhile, Irish-American singer Cathie Ryan, carrying a bodhran and a goofy, happy smile, danced impishly backstage to the irresistible Quebecois sound.

• • •

Seeing the Blazin' Fiddles on the Festival Club stage was a happy flashback to 2000, my first Celtic Colours experience, when the brilliant fiddle group dominated much of the week. An entertaining twist to the show was contrasting the band's highly individual styles of performing: Bruce MacGregor was highly animated, twisting and writhing with the tune, while Aidan O'Rourke stood still and solid as a rock. Catriona MacDonald played with a look of constantly suppressed laughter, while Iain MacFarlane appeared more serious and controlled.

And of course, Benoit -- who by rights should have not an ounce of energy left -- danced wildly with the enthusiastic Blazin' Fiddles crowd.

To fill the fifth slot -- the usual fifth wheel, Allan Henderson, was home in Scotland with his any-day-now expectant wife -- local fiddler Duncan Chisholm stepped up to the challenge. Of course, Cape Bretoners always love to see local talent joining the "away" bands on stage. Now at full strength -- Andy Thornburn on keyboards and Marc Clement on guitar rounded out the BF lineup -- the Blazers closed down the house. Chants to bring 'em back were successful, and soon they were back for more.

It got even better. After the club shut its doors for the night, members of the Blazin' Fiddles and Le Vent du Nord moved the party into the green room and kept the music going as if completely refreshed. I'd say I envy their youth, but musicians far older than me have put me to shame with their energy and talent.

• • •

Talk about an embarrassment of riches -- after a sizzling fiddle set by Jennifer Roland and Colin Grant on the Festival Club stage, the green room was hopping with a jam including the likes of Phil Cunningham, Bruce MacGregor and Kimberley Fraser. Then, back on stage, a set by fiddler Hanneke Cassel from the Cathie Ryan band and guitarist Kris Drever grew exponentially, first with the addition of Troy MacGillivray on keyboards, then Kim Fraser on fiddle. The two fiddlers traded off on tunes, the pace picked up quickly, and they devised amazing harmonies on the fly.

Later, Dinny McLaughlin -- Liz Doherty's fiddle teacher from County Donegal, Ireland -- borrowed local fiddler Paul Cranford's fiddle and went to town with a breathless set. It was a treat talking with Dinny later in the hall; he was so obviously enjoying the festival, as well as his warm welcome in Canada, and he was bursting with pride for his student's accomplishments.

• • •

For something completely different, salsa band Cuba Actual put on a hot and sultry show one night on the club stage. Not associated with Celtic Colours, the band was in town as part of a cultural exchange with Cape Breton University. Festival board member Jacqueline Thayer-Scott was happy to arrange their performance to give the Colours crowd a taste of something from warmer climes -- and certainly the band's Latin dance styles raised the temperature in the Great Hall by at least several degrees!

• • •

One of the best reasons to go to the Festival Club is the pick-up bands that sometimes spontaneously form. On Monday, the club stage closed down after a spectacular performance by fiddlers Kinnon Beaton, Andrea Beaton and Glenn Graham, Nuala Kennedy on flute, Troy MacGillivray on keyboards, guitarists Pat Gillis and Dave MacIsaac, piper Fin Moore and snare artist Cheryl Smith.

During a green room warm-up led by Nuala Kennedy, Melody Cameron performed a flawless step routine in the midst of a crowd of chatting, nibbling and drinking musicians. Then, on stage, Nuala sang a lovely Gaelic lament with Julian Sutton of the Kathryn Tickell band on melodeon, before adding Aaron Jones of the Old Blind Dogs and Peter Tickell for an O'Carolan and jig set. Danish singers Karen & Helene supplied an airy waltz; when the pace kicked up for the jigs, they met the challenge and twirled faster and faster until festival co-founder Joella Foulds and site manager Gail Holdner joined them, too.

After a beautifully expressive song of lost love, Nuala led the pack -- including the fleet-footed Melody Cameron -- in a set of fast reels. Nuala closed the evening with "The Parting Glass."

Nuala redefined the word "ubiquitous" during the Festival Club this year. The talented Irish musician was everywhere, performing at every turn on stage or in the green room. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to play with her!

• • •

Kimberley Fraser, one of the island's best young fiddlers, played several times on the Festival Club stage, and each time she seemed completely serene, eyes closed, utterly at peace with her music. One day it was with Troy MacGillivray on keyboard and Damien O'Kane on guitar.

I'm convinced that, with a good support band and promotion, a Kim Fraser world tour could put her on the top of Cape Breton exports. Try telling her that, though. Said Kim, with a dismissive laugh, "Oh, it's just the same old tunes."

• • •

During one memorable fiddle set led by Troy MacGillivray, sister Kendra sat on the floor absorbing every note, her own fiddle cradled in her lap. Between tunes, she pondered the possibilities of a MacGillivray family band -- an exciting possibility, considering how well Troy, Kendra and Sabra mesh on stage.

by Tom Knapp
7 October 2006