Better than the best Celtic Colours

By Stephen Cooke – Halifax Herald

‘Better than the best’ Celtic Colours reels in record crowds in CB

St. Anns – As Celtic Colours festivals go, the 2002 edition has been, in the words of director Max MacDonald, “better than the best.”

With ticket sales numbering roughly 2,000 more than in 2001 – its most successful year up to that point – the 10-day celebration of traditional music has had a banner year, with 44 performances in 33 communities across Cape Breton Island.

“It means we live to fight again,” a chipper MacDonald said Saturday night backstage during the World’s Biggest Square Dance at Baddeck’s Victoria Highlands Civic Centre.

Citing a combination of growth and experience, MacDonald said Celtic Colours is better equipped to stand on its own than ever, with the five previous festivals serving as a training ground.

“We’re starting to see the experience of our volunteers and staff come to the fore,” said MacDonald.

“That means that the management can concentrate more on finding music and shaping the events.”

MacDonald named the performances of Galician piper Carlos Nunez as the kind of miracle that could only happen at Celtic Colours. Normally, Nunez travels with a large band and rock and roll-style production but here, he was joined only by his brother Xurxo on guitar and keyboards and still delivered mind-blowing performances wherever they played.

“He realized he’s comfortable with the more intimate version of his own sound,” MacDonald said.

“As festival director, it’s satisfying to learn he was positively affected by his experience and can’t wait to come back.”

On that note, MacDonald took off for the Baddeck stage to hear a return visitor from last year – Scottish Silly Wizard co-founder Phil Cunningham – play a tune that may become the festival’s unofficial theme: Colours of Cape Breton, inspired by his stay here in 2001.

It was Cunningham who led the all-star jam in the wee hours of Saturday morning at the Gaelic College’s Festival Club. So it was a bracing bit of musical hair o’ the dog hours later on Saturday afternoon at the Pipers Ceilidh on the same stage, in the Hall of the Clans. Bagpipes are an eye-opener at any hour of the day, even more so when they’re of this quality.

John MacPhee of Slainte Mhath started things off Cape Breton-style with a Highland solo on his set of pipes festooned with happy faces. When he went into a set of dance tunes with fellow Mhath-ematician Ryan MacNeil on keyboards, you’d have to nail your foot to the floor to keep it from tapping.

From the other Bretons – the ones in France – brothers Patrick and Jacky Molard brought their intuitive timing and eerie tone to the stage, with the combination of Patrick’s pipes and Jacky’s fiddle merging into something other, a third voice seemingly sad and joyous at the same time. With Bulgarian and Romanian influences added to the French and Gaelic stew, the Molards summoned up a sound entirely new to the Celtic Colours sphere of influence, but perfectly in keeping with the festival’s focus.

The Nunez brothers closed the afternoon with an incendiary set that proved what J.P. Cormier is to all things string-y, Carlos Nunez is to all things windy, playing a variety of pipes, whistles and flutes with equal aplomb.

One touching moment was his tribute to the late Chieftain Derek Bell, playing the group’s Oscar-winning Women of Ireland, while a blistering round of Scottish and Irish tunes featured jaw-droppingly fast fingering that will remain the stuff of festival legend for years to come.

Along with the Nunezes, festival favourites like the Alison Brown Quartet and Irish tenor banjo player Eamonn Coyne made their final Celtic Colours appearances at the square dance in Baddeck, alongside beloved island players like Sandy MacIntyre, Buddy MacMaster, Wendy MacIsaac and Howie MacDonald.

Then it was back to the Festival Club in St. Anns for one last blowout, with Danish duo Tove de Fries and Malene Beck, Slainte Mhath. And a top-notch quartet of bassist Allie Bennett, guitarist Dave MacIsaac and Kyle and Sheumas MacNeil on fiddle and keyboards closed the place down in style.

But even as you read this, there’s likely a jam session still going on somewhere in the crazy-quilt autumn hills of Cape Breton.

Copyright © 2002 The Halifax Herald All rights reserved.

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