Spring Ceilidh, featuring
Howie MacDonald, Wendy
MacIsaac & Patrick Gillis,
at the Piper's Pub,
Antigonish, Nova Scotia
(26 May 2001)

At the Spring Ceilidh in Antigonish's Piper's Pub this past Saturday, Howie MacDonald (fiddle), Wendy MacIsaac (piano) and Patrick Gillis (guitar) played to an energetic and appreciative -- although less than full -- house. Missing were the droves of starry-eyed youth who likely would have made an appearance to catch a glimpse of Ashley MacIsaac, who was originally scheduled to appear with the trio. Not to be daunted by Ashley's "kidnapping" to Toronto, however, MacDonald, MacIsaac and Gillis were in fine form, and put on an impressive show that sent feet tapping, fingers rapping and heads bobbing all round. Even the lady at the slot machines seemed to get into the swing of things, with a different arm-pull rhythm for each tempo tune!

Although Howie claims that he, Wendy and Patrick don't get the opportunity to play together too often, the fact certainly didn't stop them from providing some fantastic entertainment. With energy-packed sets lasting a good 10 and even 20 minutes, there was plenty to keep the audience entertained. From the first set, featuring a few strathspeys and a whole whack of reels, to the last set -- a dance set which went well past the band's allotted time -- the band had the rapt attention of those in attendance. After making a few minor adjustments with the sound during the first set, the performance went off without a hitch.

The first half of the performance left people just itching to dance. With boundless energy, Howie & Co. stormed their way through a seemingly endless number of tunes, with barely a breather between sets. The first set consisted of a few strathspeys and a dizzying number of reels. One could have gone home at that point already having ingested a good fill of music, but that was just the start. Each of the following sets seemed to get longer and longer. The second set began with a slower march, a couple of strathspeys and then another exhausting list of reels, after which (although already going at a mighty fine pace), Howie upped the pace, and then belted out another good bunch of reels before leaving the audience wondering what in the world he would play next. (My apologies for not attempting to name any tunes here, but even if I could remember the names of all of them, it would take far too much space to write them all down!)

Well, next came a beautifully played air. Although Howie tends to be known for his zesty performances, he is by no means slack when it comes to slower tunes. The clarity and expression that shines through his playing is astounding. On the topic of expression, I have to say that Howie MacDonald is one the most expressive fiddlers around. Jigs, reels, strathspeys, marches, waltzes, airs -- he plays them all with finesse, and his love of the music is evident. Howie is also one of the more "jumpy" players. Constantly bouncing off his seat, legs flying along with the tune, his energetic style is infectious. By the end of the third set (which went on for at least 15 minutes), my notes become a little hazy. My feet were tapping too hard to write straight, and I was too busy using my pen as an instrument to do much writing, anyhow. (I wonder if Howie would like a new sort of accompaniment? "...And on the Bic pen tonight....")

A fine set of jigs was next. Now, there are many people out there who believe jigs to be a ... shall we say, less energetic sort of tune. Not so with these musicians. Howie, Wendy and Patrick attacked this set with just as much enthusiasm as any of the others. Following the jigs was a heartening set of waltzes, and then Howie zipped right into another long set of strathspeys and reels, punctuated by the odd stepdancer who hopped onto the dance floor. Interestingly enough, I recognized quite a few of the faces there at the pub as Cape Breton locals who had travelled to Antigonish to see the show. Cape Breton is second to none when it comes to supporting their talent!

Following the break, the band began with another set of jigs. Two couples tried to start a square set, but not getting any takers, simply danced away on their own. Soon, however, they infected people with the dancing bug, and with the band still obligingly turning out jigs, the square set began. Accordingly, another set of jigs followed for the second figure [of the square set], and the dance floor quickly filled up. A characteristically lively set of reels rounded out the third figure of the set.

As a flavourful chaser to the dance set, Howie served up another whopping set of tunes. Marches and strathspeys were followed by yet another crowd-pleasing bunch of reels and a bit of stepdancing. About halfway through the set (though no one knew it was only half done at the time), Howie paused, looked indecisive (for a grand total of about two seconds, and maybe four bow strokes), then launched into another good blast of reels that went on for about five minutes. At this point, he picked up the pace again, and with flying fingers and stomping feet (both his and the crowd's) the band treated its guests to a few more frenetic minutes, much to the crowd's delight.

A few dabs at their brows, and the band was ready to go again, and dancers began to fill the floor for another square set -- two sets of jigs, and a set of reels. These sets I heard from the dance floor, where the band's vigorous playing could be best appreciated. And appreciated it was -- familiar faces blended with those of newcomers, but the smiles remained the same.

Now, I've said quite a bit about MacDonald's fiddling here, but Howie was not the only one to shine. Both Gillis's guitar playing and MacIsaac's piano playing were fabulous. The three musicians played together as though they do it every day. Transitions between tunes were almost seamless, and the energy level was extraordinary. Everyone looked to be having a good time up on stage, which is something that can often make or break a performance. And this performance was definitely made. Everything you want in a decent Cape Breton-style show was there -- spirited playing, tons of tunes, variety, and a chance to move those restless feet.

If you missed this one -- shame on you!

[ by Cheryl Turner ]