Howie MacDonald,
WhY2Keilidh
(self-produced, 1999)

I'd heard Howie MacDonald playing on several albums from various Nova Scotian musicians, so I was looking forward to hearing one of his own recordings when I was visiting Cape Breton. The first one I saw, in a small grocery store en route to the Highlands, was his 1999 release WhY2Keilidh, and I eagerly shoved the disc into the car's stereo. Talk about shock.

OK, so the cartoony cover should have been my first clue that Howie wasn't an entirely serious person. But I didn't expect this!

The album begins with a phone call from an angry wife seeking her missing mate. This album is, I later learned, a sequel of sorts to Howie's earlier album, The Dance Last Night, which features the characters Archie and Roddy (both voiced by MacDonald) and a bevy of other Cape Breton folks at a lively dance hall. Now a crowd has gathered at Archie's for an all-night jam ... and the album reflects that sort of impromptu atmosphere, complete with crowd hysterics, chatter, the crisp snap of beer cans being opened, bickering, heckling and even a bit of flatulence. Rising above it all, however, is excellent music recorded in appropriately casual "kitchen ceilidh" style -- with a few MacDonald novelties thrown in for extra measure.

Take the first song, "Scotch Music," a pop radio spoof of the '80s Top 40 hit "Pop Music" by M. Howie provides the lead vocals in "island fogie" style, while his sister Marilyn adds a glossy pop backup. Follow this one through and, when you're done laughing, it's time for the session to begin. While MacDonald did all the instrumentals for The Dance Last Night, he's joined on this one by guests J.P. Cormier on electric and acoustic guitars, banjo and mandolin, Gordie Sampson on electric and acoustic guitars and percussion, Matt Foulds on snare drum and bodhran, and Bill Macaulay on a bit of organ. MacDonald tops it off with fiddle, piano, organ, synthesizer, electric guitar and percussion.

There had to be a lot of straight studio work involved here, but by gum, the album sounds like it was recorded in someone's living room, the musicians crammed into a corner and surrounded by a crowd of revelrous, hard-drinking music-lovers. There are a lot of fun characters in the room, too, including the inevitable chatterers, loud laughers, a henpecked husband, a curmudgeon or two, and one really good screamer. You've even got an old fella in the room who makes requests by humming tunes and hoping the fiddler catches on. (The fiddler invariably does -- in one case, jumping in even before the mad hummer starts his hum. This probably works so well since Howie is both hummer and fiddler.)

The fiddle takes the back seat on a few occasions, such as the guitar piece "John Paul à Guit," featuring some sterling fingerwork by Cormier. "Gordie at the Citadel," featuring a fiddle duet, begins with a synthesized introduction from The Addams Family. But Howie's fiddle is the star here, no doubt, riffing through track sets including "Smooth Eddy," "Stiffen 'm Brenda," "Old Scotty Stuff" and the frighteningly titled "Ten-Pound Tumor."

There's another made-for-radio techno remix at the end of the session, then a wild hillbilly theme is used to send everyone home at roughly 4:45 a.m. Archie and Roddy get their final slurred licks in before a climactic and explosive conclusion to Roddy's night. Then there's one more tune to round out the disc: "Kilts on Fire," a slowed-down number by MacDonald and Brenda Stubbert.

This CD will certainly leave some people scratching their heads, and I wouldn't recommend it as anyone's first introduction to Cape Breton music ... however, if you're ready for something completely different, prepare to spend an interesting night in the company of Cape Breton's resident kook, Howie MacDonald. The music is great, the humor is fun and stands up to repeated playing. What more could you want?

[ by Tom Knapp ]