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Celtic fun meets funk

Metis fiddler pays tribute to native roots; Shooglenifty takes audience through uncharted music territory

By Stephen Cooke – Halifax Herald

WHILE
CELTIC culture naturally dominates the proceedings at the Celtic
Colours International Festival in Cape Breton, it’s not the only
community deserving recognition on the island. Since it was the Mi’kmaq
nation that first greeted the French and Scottish settlers in Cape
Breton, how appropriate at Saturday night’s show in the First Nations
community of Wagmatcook that history would repeat itself at the town’s
new culture and heritage centre.

Titled Mawita’mk: Getting
Together, the evening began with a drum circle and dancers from Indian
Bay, plus a smudging ceremony performed with an eagle feather, with
participation by audience members and musicians alike.

Now
cleared of evil spirits, the sold-out hall was ready for the main
event, with a stellar lineup whose skill and repertoire would
definitely remove any remaining bad mojo.

It started with
Metis fiddler Sierra Noble. Accompanied by veteran Cape Breton
guitarist Brian Doyle, the 17-year-old Manitoban showed impressive
skill and depth of feeling, winning points right off the bat by
including Constitution Breakdown by Cape Breton Mi’kmaq fiddler Lee
Cremo in her first set of tunes.

Noble then paid tribute to
noted Metis fiddler Calvin Volrath, playing Aurora’s Reel, before
pouring out the scotch on Whisky Before Breakfast and St. Ann’s Reel,
probably to make Doyle, whom she’d only met just three hours before,
feel more at home.

“Brian learned the history of Metis music in an hour,” she explained. “Lucky for me, he’s a genius.”

“Just
don’t listen too closely,” quipped the Margaree musician, before
launching into the delightful Gilbert’s Duck Dance and the yearning
True Heart’s Waltz, “written for me by Oliver Schroer, one of my best
friends in the world, when I was going through a tough time in my
life,” explained Noble.

Schroer, now going through a tough time himself, did her a great favour, with his lyrical, bittersweet composition.

Finally,
Noble and Doyle proved their meeting was truly serendipitous with a set
of tunes including Big John MacNeil and even a bit of the Flintstones,
as their fingers seemed to move in unison like they’d been playing
together for years. The good spirits had definitely taken hold. J.P.
Cormier was in high spirits for his set, playing some of his more
lighthearted material and trading barbs with his wife Hilda
Chaisson-Cormier behind the keyboard.

Even when introducing The Wreck of the Molly Mae, he noted that he hadn’t known it was a true story until after he wrote it.

“I must be psychic,” the Cheticamp virtuoso mused.

“Well, you’re definitely weird,” Hilda countered, snickering.

All
thoughts of comedy evaporated, though, when Cormier hunkered down and
played, constructing the delicate framework of The Mathematician on his
guitar fretboard with unerring ease, and impressing listeners with
nimble sets on banjo and mandolin.

The pair ended the set on
a memorable note with Cormier’s recent composition inspired by his
visit to Afghanistan. A vivid picture of men doing an impossible job in
an unforgiving land, the song earned them an immediate standing
ovation. Headliners Shooglenifty displayed plenty of virtuosity and
versatility, with a splash of irreverence as the electric and ecclectic
sextet took Celtic music through uncharted territory. Fiddler Angus
Grant described the tune Scraping the Barrel as the product of being
unable to come up with an original new title, but the song itself was a
delight, built on guitarist Malcolm Crosbie’s cool tremolo guitar line,
like the theme for a spy movie where Sean Connery stayed in Scotland.

Two
Fifty to Vigo was the result of Grant’s busking trip through Spain, and
a terrifying ride on the back of a hippie’s motorbike, but the slow,
sun-baked melody was anything but scary, as Shooglenifty navigated its
mysterious curves. “If anyone feels like dancing . . . please don’t, we
hate it when people do that,” deadpanned Grant, before pointing out
that was a bit of Scotch humour. It was an apt preface, though, for a
set of tunes including a Macedonian death song and a Tasmanian
tango/breakdance, courtesy of Aussie mandolinist Luke Plumb.

Grant’s
violin and Plumb’s mandolin chimed together nicely over James
Mackintosh’s churning Mediterranean rhythm, before Plumb broke out his
tenor banjo, tricked out with fuzz tone and wah-wah for some seriously
funky sounds.

There’s always an element of funk lurking in
Shooglenifty’s songs, due in large part to Quee Macarthur’s rubbery
bass lines. Trim Controller began as kind of a lounge jazz number
before turning into a rollicking jig, complete with Garry Finlayson’s
string-bending solo on the electric banjax (a customized banjo) and a
few bars of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me for good measure. It just goes
to show there’s a fine line between fun Celtic and funk-Celtic.

Copyright © 2007 The Halifax Herald

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