The Cape Breton supergroup called Beòlach was the headliner at a show called “Far Flung Fiddles” at the Judique Community Center in Judique, Nova Scotia, on the evening of the third full day of the 17th annual Celtic Colours International Festival Monday, Oct. 14. And Beòlach indeed brought the near-capacity crowd to their feet more than once.
What a super group Beòlach is, too, anchored by two top fiddlers in Mairi Rankin and Wendy MacIsaac, plus Ryan MacNeil on pipes and whistles, Mac Morin on piano and Patrick Gillis on guitar. In addition, Mairi, Wendy and Mac all are top-notch step-dancers in the Cape Breton tradition, and we were treated to a couple of lively demonstrations. The other thing is, every one of these performers is considered to be a “local” by anyone from this northern shore of Cape Breton Island. When asked by Wendy, who doubled as the emcee for the evening, what he would be doing on the morrow, Ryan replied that he’d be finishing up a bathroom remodelling project as part of his day job!
So Beòlach was the clear crowd favorite, and put on quite a show. They opened with a set that began with a strathspey by the late great Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland, and played tune-set after tune-set for nearly an hour, and the players clearly had as much fun as the crowd. Mac Morin, just to name one, is a great piano player in an island that’s full of them, and his playing drew several appreciative glances and smiles mid-tune from Mairi and Wendy as he gave the keyboard a workout from one end to the other.
But truthfully, I was there mostly to see the musician in the middle of the bill. Chicago-based Irish-style fiddler Liz Carrol
is a long-time favorite of mine, and one of the main reasons I came to Celtic Colours this year. As luck would have it, she has a brand-new CD called On the Offbeat that she brought with her to Cape Breton before it’s even available in any store. On the album and at this appearance she played with a trio, something new for her, and her playing seemed particularly energetic in the trio setting. Rounding out the trio were Séan Óg Graham (Beoga) on guitar and Trevor Hutchinson (Lúnasa) on double bass. They played a lot of tunes off the new album and some of Liz’s older tunes. The names I caught included “Balkan Balkan,” “Rogue’s Reel,” “E-B-E Reel,” one named for Barbra Streisand’s visit to Saginaw, Michigan, and a slow tune called “Tinsel” with Hutchinson playing bowed bass. Liz has a lovely style of playing that’s very fluid and lyrical with lots of grace notes and a fine, clear tone. But she can also kick arse on that fiddle, and there was plenty of that in evidence on this night as well.
The night was opened by a trio of players calling themselves Nordic Fiddlers Bloc: Olav Luksegård Mjelva of Norway, Anders Hall of Sweden and Kevin Henderson of the Shetland Islands. As is typical for an opening act here, they played four suites of tunes that included many jigs and reels but also some polskas and more. One was a Charlie McCarron tune after a visit to Spain called “Paella Grande” that featured a time signature that shifted from seven to eight beats with every bar, and another chilling number called “Shetland Greenland Man’s Tune” which Henderson said was borrowed long ago from Greenland Eskimos.
Unfortunately, one of the main draws on this bill, dancer Nic Gareiss, had to withdraw due to an injury.
The crowd of nearly 500 was, as usual, pin-drop quiet during the music and enthusiastically raucous with its applause. The community hosted free tea and snacks after the show, and dinner was available beforehand at the neighboring Celtic Music Interpretive Center, a fabulous new resource that includes archives, exhibits, gift shop, kitchen and a performance space – well worth the visit next time you’re on Cape Breton Island!