Fiddle Heaven (Kyle MacNeil, Liz Carroll and Tove de Fries),
Celtic Colours International Festival, North River Centre for the Performing Arts,
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, October 13, 2002

I wish I could show you video and play you a recording of this magical night, dubbed "Fiddle Heaven" in the Celtic Colours program. It would make anyone a fan of fiddle music, to hear this auditory ambrosia and to hear it in this setting — a candle-lit converted church, atop a hill overlooking the fjord-like Bras d'or Lakes of Cape Breton Island — is to hear it as the gods intended. The pews were packed with true believers, as was the standing-room-only vestibule behind the sanctuary, for three (make that four) out-of-this-world class fiddlers.

The first was the unknown (but not for long) Dane, Tove de Fries, accompanied by Malene D. Beck on piano. Cape Breton's fiddling ambassador to the world, Jerry Holland, met her and played at her birthday party earlier in the summer, in the Fanø (pronounced fain-rig) region of Denmark, and apparently was instrumental in getting her invited to Celtic Colours 2002. De Fries played with a lovely liquid style on a variety of polskas, waltzes, jigs and reels, to this very appreciative crowd. Afterward, she handed out a few copies of a five-song demo CD that never left our car's CD player for the rest of our time on Cape Breton. She promises a full-length debut CD will be available via her Web site sometime in 2003.

Next up was the ever-delightful Liz Carroll, who got the crowd further warmed up with her driving, rhythmic, almost percussive fiddling style. She also charmed the crowd with her self-deprecating manner and warm but sly sense of humor. For her rendition of the "Potato Drop Reel," she tossed four potatoes into the crowd and urged the catchers to drop them at the appropriate moment, which she said would be obvious. The reel was written, she explained, during her twenty-something fiddling days in Chicago, when a favorite trick in her house was to put a potato over a doorway so it would drop on the next person who opened it.What else did Liz play? I'm pretty sure the "Drunken Sailor" hornpipe was in there somewhere, and a whole bunch of jigs and reels, and perhaps the title track off Lake Effect. Other than that, I was too caught-up in the music to write it down even if I could have, which I couldn't, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd in the near-dark.

I was able to find a seat after the intermission, and it's a good thing I did, or else I might have been a victim of the musical version of what Pentecostal Christians refer to as being "slain in the spirit." Fiddler Kyle MacNeil and his brother Seamus on the piano kicked out the jams and rocked the place to its foundations. These two brothers are members of the well-known group, the Barra MacNeils, a family act out of Sydney Mines, a mining community that has produced more than its share of Irish-style musicians. Kyle recalls being exposed to the Bothy Band in the '70s, and that was all it took to set him off on a life of music-making.

A brawny man with a head that looks too big for his very broad shoulders, MacNeil has a muscular, powerful style of fiddling. His high-energy attack immediately grabbed the crowd's attention and held it for a long and extremely impressive set. MacNeil's playing showed a serious intensity and directness that was hypnotic in effect.

For the finale, they of course dragged Jerry Holland onto the tiny stage, which now held four fiddlers and three pianists who took turns at the ivories. The others more or less backed Kyle as he plowed into a long set of Barra MacNeil jigs and reels, brimming with innovations, and showing all kinds of influences, ornamentations and stylings, from blues to jazz to rock, all within the framework of the Celtic mode. Then it was time for one of Jerry Holland's lovely lilting waltzes, as the fiddlers all took turns embellishing the melody.

But the night wasn't over yet, as all the fiddlers and half the crowd adjourned to the North River Community Hall, a couple of miles down the road, where they joined the locals and the rest of de Fries's Danish entourage for more fiddling and dancing. The Danes demonstrated their Fanø-style circular couples' folk dance, something between a polka, a hambo and a waltz, as fiddlers, guitarists, pianists and bodhran-thumpers crowded the hall's elevated stage. The walls were lined with tables, which were packed with locals and guests enjoying cans of Guinness and local brews, making a grand way to play out Sunday night and welcome Monday morning.

'Twas indeed Fiddle Heaven.

[Gary Whitehouse]