Foliage falters, Celtic Colours music blazes

Lamond, MacIsaac among opening gala stars

By Stephen Cooke – The Chronicle Herald

Sun, Oct 9 – 2011

PORT HAWKESBURY — Maybe it’s just me, but the expected autumnal display between Halifax and Cape Breton didn’t seem to snap, sparkle or pop the way it usually does this time of year. Even the prime stretch of foliage through Marshy Hope seemed unusually muted during the drive to Port Hawkesbury on Friday for the opening gala concert of the island’s annual Celtic Colours International Festival.

This will change, of course — the drive home will likely be a another story — but in the meantime the aural spectrum of Celtic Colours will provide the necessary contrast, with the premiere show at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre a splendid forerunner of the week to come.

Titled Distant Sons and Daughters, the roster reached across the Atlantic to Scotland and Ireland, and into the American South, as well as offering talent from just up the road in Creignish and Glendale.

After a short speech by Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis and no speech by Deputy Premier Frank Corbett (“Do you want me to read a speech or do you want to get on with the entertainment?” the MLA for Cape Breton Centre asked to a chorus of approval for the latter), the concert began with a set by not-so-distant daughters Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac.

After an aching lament of unrequited love (“That’s me, the Gaelic killjoy,” quipped Lamond), the Glendale singer switched to accordion for Creignish-born fiddler MacIsaac’s jaunty Yellow Coat Set, mixing Cape Breton and Irish tunes.

Then it was MacIsaac’s turn to switch things up, displaying some recently acquired mandolin skills on a North Shore milling song, her bright picking balancing out Lamond’s doleful tones, aided further by the jazzy chording of guitarist Seph Peters and percussionist Cathy Porter’s insistent shakers.

Some of their new material is still coming together, one vocal number suffered from a false start but worked beautifully once it got going, and bodes well for

Lamond and MacIsaac plan to release an album in January called Seinn (“Sing” in Gaelic).

From further down the road, that road being the I-95, came the authentic Appalachian voice of Sheila Kay Adams, who greeted the packed arena with a hearty “Well, howdy!” and remarked that she got on a plane at JFK and got off it in heaven. Adams grew up in Sodom, North Carolina — and yes, she’s heard all the jokes the town’s name suggests — in a family where everyone was encouraged to sing, and the twang in her earthy romantic ballads sounds as real as the creak of an old barn door or the stubborn pulley on a farmhouse well.

Adams was the perfect lead-in for the old-time, bluegrass and folk mix of the Jumpsteady Boys, featuring artist-in-residence Bruce Molsky and multi-instrumentalists Mike Compton, Joe Newberry and Rafe Stefanini. Molsky noted that Appalachian and Cape Breton styles draw from the same Scottish and Irish wells: “It’s like Groucho Marx said, ‘We both went to different schools together.’ ” Then, he led the recently formed quartet of longtime friends through a lickety-split set of string-band tunes that got feet tapping throughout the Civic Centre.

However, none tapped quite like stepdancer Nic Gareiss, who appears to possess a series of double joints from his hips to his ankles while his feet glide like a pat of butter across a hot corn cob. The week will provide a host of musical memories, but Gareiss’s footwork will likely be its strongest visual one.

For its second half, Distant Sons and Daughters began in a contemplative mood with fest favourite Dougie MacLean, as Scottish a singer as you could ever hope to hear. With his melodious burr, MacLean crafts adult songs about real-life concerns, revelling in life’s simple pleasures on Holding Back, and taking stock in Talking With My Father. When he sings about “this place of harmony and wonder,” he might just as well be singing about the coming week across the island as he is his own home.

Creignish native Ashley MacIsaac didn’t need words to express his love of home, pouring his heart into the slow air Beautiful Lake Ainslie before tearing up the horsehair on his bow in rip-snorting double time, matched every step of the way by Detroit-born pianist Barbara MacDonald Magone.

Magone is the daughter of fiddler Johnny Archie MacDonald from Little Judique Ponds. Her lyrical playing was a stately counterpoint to MacIsaac’s emotive style, but she also provided a solid base when he ratcheted up the tempo, and the audience whooped accordingly.

Between songs, the irrepressible fiddler poked fun at politicians — “I thought Peter MacKay was going to be here but I guess he ran out of frequent flyer miles” — and praised mentors like Buddy MacMaster and Dan R. MacDonald, as well as champion Highland dancer Sabra MacGillivray, whose Celtic Touch troupe lent a nimble visual element to MacIsaac’s and Magone’s Fairy Dance.

The gala’s rousing climax came courtesy of both sons and daughters in the genetically entwined Irish harmonies of Black Family brothers Michael and Shay and sisters Francis and Mary. Seizing on the “distant” part of the show’s title, the Blacks focused on songs about leaving the Emerald Isle behind, seeking fortune or fleeing famine. With bold vocal strokes they summed up the influence of Irish emigration on What a Time, injecting it with the lifeblood that’s kept the music going across oceans and across centuries.

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