Fiddler Martin Hayes and guitarist John Doyle brought the capacity crowd to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation at the conclusion of a stunning set of reels, the climax of an evening of traditional and contemporary music in the Mi’kmaw First Nation village of Wagmatcook Saturday, Oct. 12. It was a wonderful way to conclude the first full day of the 17th annual Celtic Colours International Festival on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
Tee and Tunes
Hayes and Doyle are two-thirds of the Irish trio the Teetotalers, rounded out by Kevin Cameron (Lúnasa) on whistles and flutes. They were the third and final act of a program called Tee and Tunes at the Wagmatcook Culture and Heritage Center. The evening opened with a nameless trio of popular Cape Bretoners sometimes referred to as the Three Ms, consisting of Mairi Rankin (Beòlach) on fiddle, pianist Mac Morin (also of Beòlach) and Matt MacIsaac (Cuillin) on whistle and pipes. They played a fairly short list of five sets of tunes, jigs and reels, including a lovely waltz called “Miss V” written
for MacIsaac’s sister. Mac and Mairi started the final tune set with a rousing Cape Breton-style step-dancing demonstration that clearly delighted the crowd. This type of performance to me epitomizes what Celtic Colours is all about – local musicians of international stature (all three have toured and played with Natalie MacMaster) performing before a crowd that included beaming locals and fans who’ve traveled to the festival from all over the world. A call for “who has traveled the farthest” from the emcee during one break revealed audience members from South Africa, Austria, the Netherlands and Alaska, in the crowd of more than 500 in the gymnasium-like hall.
The middle of the bill was held down by Dry Bones, an acoustic roots music quartet from Manitoba. This group packs quite a punch with two highly emotive lead singers in tenor JD Edwards and baritone Nathan Rogers (both on guitars) banjo-player and singer Leonard Podolak (The Duhks) and bassist Gilles Fourniers. The quartet sang some beautiful four-part harmony on the tear-jerking ballad “Land of the Living Skies”; included some ham-boning and a baritone kazoo on the old-time novelty
number “Cocaine”; and just generally got the crowd all fired up with a set that, unusually for the festival, included no fiddles.
But the night truly belonged to the supremely talented Irish trio. Cameron, Hayes and Doyle all have long and illustrious careers as solo acts or in other groups; the Teetotalers came together by chance in 2010, and have gotten together occasionally since then. All took turns introducing tunes and suites, and each took his turn in the spotlight, but it was as a group firing on all cylinders that they truly took flight. Jigs and reels, a couple of strathspeys, a couple of songs sung by Doyle including the sad but uplifting “Liberty’s Sweet Shore” that had the crowd singing along – all were superb. At the end, all 10 musicians from the three groups came onstage for a grand finale, a set of jigs and reels, the song “Lazy John” sung by Podolak, and a final wild reel.
Acadian Celtic Crossroads
The day began with a program that highlighted the multicultural nature of Cape Breton Island. “Acadian Celtic Crossroads” was held in mid-afternoon at the Francophone school Étoile de l’Acadie in Sydney. It featured the delightful trio from Quebec, Le Bruit Court Dans la Ville (“the buzz around town”); Cape Breton singer Delores Boudreau; local
fiddler Colin Grant with pianist Joël Chiasson; the school-age dance troupe Pieds en Cadence; Montreal step-dancer Pierre Chartrand; and topping the bill Louisiana musicians Dirk Powell (Balfa Toujours) and David Greeley (Mamou Playboys). They played before another full house of 500 or more in the school’s gymnasium. Sound at both events was superb.
Those were just two of several musical events Saturday, and the scheduled music events just scratch the surface of Celtic Colours. The festival includes numerous lectures, workshops and community meals all across the island, and untold other happenings such as impromptu jam sessions in local cafes and coffee houses, open-mic nights, and quasi-official events like the “Bell Series,” day-time music performances by festival participants at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum here in Baddeck. And of course the after-hours Festival Club at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s that starts every night around 11 and goes until 3 a.m. or so.