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Review: Gala Opening Concert

By Tom Knapp
Rambles.net a cultural arts magazine

Opening ceremonies often begin with speeches. Organizers, public officials and everyone else who can get their moments in the spotlight will make their remarks, welcomes and thanks, often for mind-bendingly long periods, while the audience fidgets and waits for the show to begin.

Organizers of Celtic Colours 2001, Cape Breton’s annual international music festival, know what the event is about. The opening ceremony in Sydney, Cape Breton’s largest city, began with a bagpipe procession, a brief concert in Gaelic by several festival headliners and a shower of autumn leaves.

Officials followed piper John Grant into the arena, where Mary Jane Lamond waited to kick things off with a Gaelic waulking song. Lamond passed the baton to singer Colin Watson, then joined him for a duet. Next, the spotlight shifted to Arthur Cormack, Mary Ann Kennedy and Maggie MacDonald, three members of the Scottish band Cliar, who continued the Gaelic presentation with their amazing vocal harmonies. Then Cliar, Lamond and Watson joined the Iona Gaelic Singers for a brief milling frolic, tweed slapping the table in rhythm to their timeless song.

Wayne MacIntosh, chairman of the Celtic Colours Festival Society, did make brief remarks, but no one seemed to mind the interruption to the music when he noted that the festival has been named the top cultural event in Canada for 2001 by Attractions Canada and top Canadian event for 2001 by the American Bus Association.

“We are in for an amazing week of celebration,” MacIntosh said, citing Cape Breton’s unique music, culture and traditions. After making brief thanks to the appropriate parties, he concluded his brief comments by saying the Cape Breton culture “is alive and much more than well. It is something to celebrate.”

MacIntosh turned the show back to Lamond, who joined Scottish guitar master Tony McManus as co-host of the night’s festivities.

Recent events on the international front — the terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11 and the subsequent movements towards war — have had repercussions in Cape Breton. For instance, Lamond told audience members, Galician bagpiper Susana Seivane and Ontario’s 8 Wing Trenton Pipe Band had to cancel their performances because of travel concerns. Also, Cape Breton’s fiddle master Buddy MacMaster was struck ill and was unable to perform.

That didn’t stop the remaining musicians from putting on a fine show to get things started for the week. Beolach, a great new Cape Breton band, was first on the stage, taking a slow musical introduction and building the pace to the kind of energy and innovation Cape Breton musicians are famous for. It was a good way to start the festival with a bang.

Next, fiddlers Ian MacFarlane and Alan Henderson, who were in Cape Breton last year as members of Blazin’ Fiddles, joined with Scottish legend Phil Cunningham, who held court on his massive white piano accordion.

Cunningham, who first achieved fame as a founding member of Scottish supergroup Silly Wizard, produced a magnificent sound not usually associated with the accordion. The stately pipe tune which began their first set quickly accelerated, and accelerated again before a rousing conclusion. “We’ve got to slow it down a bit or it’ll be over before we start,” Cunningham quipped.

This portion of the show featured numerous pipe tunes, many of which were Cunningham originals, and Cunningham had humorous anecdotes (and groan-inducing jokes) for each. The set ended with a fierce pair of tunes, both Cunningham originals, inspired by a traffic jam and a flatulent musician.

After a brief intermission, the production resumed with a light-footed performance by the Breton Batherson Dancers, featuring Cape Breton variations on Scottish Highland dancing. Then Tony McManus demonstrated his own brand of intricate fingerstyle techniques on guitar.

Although Buddy MacMaster was unable to attend the opening ceremonies, his family was well-represented by his famous niece Natalie MacMaster, who closed the concert with a phenomenal blast of tune sets. Although this was, unfortunately, Natalie’s only appearance at the festival this year because of other tour commitments, she certainly made the most of this one opportunity, treating the assembled crowd to an electrifying exhibition of Cape Breton fiddling at its finest.

As anyone who has ever seen Natalie can confirm, her legs move as fast as her fingers, a perpetual motion machine of music who provides a show every bit as visual as it is aural — and, considering the sound she puts out, that’s saying quite a lot.

She clearly relished the chance to perform for a hometown crowd. “There’s always a little edge when you play at home,” she confessed — because, unlike most audiences, her friends and neighbors will know if she makes a mistake.

The show included her usual collection of tune sets, including “Blue Bonnets Over the Border,” best known to many as a fast-paced jig but redefined by Natalie as a breathtakingly beautiful air. She ended the show with a final blast of marches, strathspeys, jigs and reels, as well as her famous tap and stepdancing. (If anyone could bottle what Natalie has, they could drive caffeine off the market.) A well-deserved standing ovation brought Natalie and her band back for a vigorous encore.

As if that wasn’t enough, the 3 1/2-hour gala concluded with an ensemble performance by pretty much everyone who played earlier that night. It was a spectacle that came off as extremely polished, and it was a crowning touch to a grand evening.

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