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Review: The Hand That Rocks the Bow

By Tom Knapp
Rambles.net – a cultural arts magazine

The skies were a hodgepodge of reds and blues and golds, with dazzling, threatening-looking clouds scattered in strangely beautiful patterns. Well, it was strange to my admittedly landlubbing central Pennsylvania eyes; no doubt it was nothing unusual to those better acquainted with the rugged coastal environment of Cape Breton Island.

The colorful spectacle of the sky was just a hint of the spectacle to come on the SEARC stage in Port Hawkesbury, one of Cape Breton’s larger urban areas just off the Canso Causeway back to the mainland. The featured show for the evening was The Hand That Rocks the Bow, one of several performances scheduled for the third day of the Celtic Colours festival.

This show spotlighted six female fiddlers from the Cape Breton, Nova Scotian, Scottish and Irish traditions, and the finger-and-bow agility on display was dazzling indeed.

Cape Breton fiddler Mairi Rankin (who was celebrating her birthday) got things off to a lively start, playing with such energy and poise that I didn’t see how it could get much better.

Primarily upbeat, Mairi’s set included a heartfelt lament for the late John Morris Rankin. To date her only original composition, it shows a great deal of promise for her future efforts at writing music. Mairi’s portion of the show, which ended with a big blast of Irish tunes, was supported by Mac Morin on piano, Gordie Sampson on guitar and Matt Foulds on drums.

Kendra MacGillivray, from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, maintained the level of excellence set by Mairi, starting her portion of the show with a haunting air that led, as most tune sets at Celtic Colours do, into a fast blast of reels. Kendra’s performance was accompanied by her brother, Troy, on piano, and her sister, Sabra, who added Highland dancing and a bit of bodhran to the show.

Ignoring the chair available for the fiddlers’ use, Kendra played with a bouncy style, barely short of dancing herself. After a set of her grandfather’s signature polkas, a breathless Kendra accented her last blast of tunes with a stepdancing routine of her own.

Wendy MacIsaac, in an extremely bright orange top, rounded out the first half of the show, the last of the local performers in the Port Hawkesbury lineup. She began her portion of the show accompanied by guitarist Gordie Sampson. As the show progressed, she was joined by pianist Mac Morin and drummer Matt Foulds — the latter wearing conspicuously bright orange pants.

Wendy demonstrated the abilities that have made her one of Cape Breton’s brightest stars in recent years, keeping the audience engaged through her energetic performance. She ended the set by inviting Mairi Rankin, who partners with Wendy in the Cape Breton band Beolach, back to the stage for a rousing “Hen Party” set.

By the time the intermission began, it was hard to imagine there was any more energy left in the room. Scottish fiddlers Clare McLaughlin and Marianne Campbell proved there was plenty to spare when they, as cMc, ripped through sets of their traditional music.

The two young ladies performed with the aid of an anonymous guitarist and drummer, both of whom kept their eyes turned firmly away from the audience for the entire performance. Clare, who did most of the talking for the band, had an endearing, excitable air, tripping quickly through her introductions with a thick Glasgow accent.

Clare and Marianne have a great rapport, complementing each other very nicely on stage. This is a fresh new band to watch in the future.

“She’s from Ireland, but she really should be one of ours,” Wendy Bergfeldt, CBC radio host and emcee for the Port Hawkesbury lineup, said during her introduction of County Donegal fiddler Liz Doherty. “She really should be a Cape Bretoner.” Liz, she noted, had done her doctoral thesis on Cape Breton fiddle traditions, and she has steeped herself in the Cape Breton style for many years.

Stuffed to bursting on Thanksgiving dinner (Canada celebrates the holiday much earlier than the United States), Liz began her show in a burst of giggles as the zipper of her skin-tight black leather pants lost the war against turkey. She would, she decided, do her show sitting down.

It didn’t seem to phase her or slow her down once the playing began. She launched right into the music, drawing sparks from her bow with incredible style. As extraordinary as the other fiddlers in the show had been, Liz quickly made it obvious why she was the headliner of this show. In addition to amazing fiddle chops, she also has an endearing charm to match her performance.

Kudos also to “the lads,” pianist Morin and drummer Foulds, both of whom provided brilliant accompaniment despite minimal rehearsal time with Liz. The level of polish in their show belied the lack of practice available to them.

As if that wasn’t enough, the finale brought the entire lineup of fiddlers back to the stage for a powerful performance in unison. This final blast of tunes led into a series of solo fiddle spotlights — Wendy, Mairi, Marianne, Kendra, Clare and Liz — as well as stepdancing by Sabra, Wendy, Mairi and Kendra. Then the fiddles all joined forces again, bringing the night to a close with unbelievable power.

It was only the third day of a nine-day music festival, and I’m wondering if I’ve already seen the best show of the week. It’s hard to imagine it getting much better than this.

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