Cirmhor, McMurphy's Bar, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (September 26, 2003)
Women's International Celtic Conference Concert, Music Hall, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (October 4, 2003)
Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Christ Church Deerpart, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (October 18, 2003)
Cavalia, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (October 21, 2003)
Tommy Makem & LOKA, Hugh's Room, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (October 28, 2003)

Out and about in Toronto....

While Toronto isn't known for its folk music scene per se, there are indeed some great venues, clubs and hard-working individuals bringing folk music I particularly like of the Celtic genre to a small but dedicated public. Now, small in a city of 4 million may be big somewhere else, but let's just say that folk music audiences won't be outshining the film festival or the dj scene any time soon. I've been out and about lately, and am here to bring you the report on my adventures in music and dancing horses.

Cirmhor is actually a band that found itself on the Internet, so to speak. Long ago on a small green isle in the Atlantic, three musicians formed a band and played together, with some success particularly in their gigs in Hyland's Hotel in Ballyvaughan in County Clare. But life intervened and they found themselves separated by oceans and national boundaries. They are Judi McKeon (vocals, guitars and percussion), Frazer Neill (vocals, guitars and fiddles) and Pat Simmonds (vocals, guitars and accordions). They reconnected on the Internet, and decided to get together to see if playing and possibly recording together is in the cards. Although they played several gigs in their reunion here in T.O., I caught them at McMurphy's, a small workingman's bar on Eglinton Avenue here in Toronto. Clearly their days as a house band served them well for working the crowd, which was equally composed of the enthusiastic and those concentrating on their pints and their conversations. The band have a good mix of styles, adding in the occasional Cajun beat to a mostly Celtic repertoire. McKeon has gone on to write songs for artists like Sean Tyrrell and Aoife Clancy, here singing some fine originals with titles like "Room to Let," "Jacob," and "Sweet Ballyvaughan." She does well with both the plaintive numbers like "MacPherson's Lament" and upbeat numbers. Not surprisngly there were quite a few Scottish songs in the set, such as "Caledonia," and "Killikrankie." All three are fine players and their ease with one another is evident on stage.

Celtic Women's Conference
The Celtic Women's Conference was hosted on October 3-5 by Celtic Women Toronto, and had a great program of folklore, dance and music from many Celtic regions. Yours truly was able to make the evening concert, hosted by Cape Breton's Mary Jane Lammond, who gave a lovely performance of a Cape Breton song and definitely kept the "women" thing going as MC. The Music Hall is an aged beauty that must have been magnificent in her youth but now can't seem to get past smearing the mascara. The seats are not uncomfortable, but when the lights are up the mishmash of aging Victorian decoration covered by ill advised and tattered "improvements" makes the heart cry out for some sort of historic rehabilitation grant. Still the theatre hosts a great number of shows and screens movies that might not otherwise get a hearing. This evening, vocal highlights included English folk singer and feminist Frankie Armstrong singing "Tam Lin," and Scottish folklore scholar Margaret Bennett's performance which ended with a sing along. Quebec's Tess LeBlanc gave some great step dancing performances both to her own music and when invited by several other acts; she has a very lively and fluid style of dancing that is guaranteed to liven up almost any set. There were two instrumental highlights, both provided by local Toronto musicians. Debbie Quigley, who performed with Declan O'Docherty and Martin Gould, gave a great set on the uilleann pipes; as well a new group that was born when Loretto Reid (flutes & accordions), Kelly Hood (uilleann pipes), October Brown (guitar and vocals) and Anne Lederman (fiddle) decided to combine forces rather than do individual sets. They played a wonderful set, with tunes from several traditions, beginning with the "Dion Reel" and including a Metis tune, along with standards like "Toss the Feathers." Loretto's lively stage banter spiced things up, and they asked for suggestions for names from the audience. If next year's conference is anything like this one, by all means, do attend, whatever your gender! This year's conference was made possible the tireless work of several women in the local organization, including Catherine Crowe and Loraine Gardiner, and I have to say that their efforts seem to really have paid off.

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill
Speaking of dedication, Stephen Mallory has organized a concert series of mostly Celtic folk artists, and I was lucky enough to see Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill on October 18 at Christ Church Deerpark. The Limerick native was touring behind his latest CD, Live in Seattle, and gave his usual stunning musical performance, accompanied by somewhat hesitant and understated stage banter. He appears to be one of those brilliant but shy people for whom chitchat with a mass of strangers is necessary for communicating his true love: the music. The venue was a far cry from some of the others I've been to lately — it was eerily quiet, although quite a beautiful space. Perhaps it's my imagination, but the venue seemed to create a reverential approach with Hayes in the first set, which included the "Limerick Reel" and a selection of tunes from his Clare that are featured on Live. Hayes also resurrected a tune by the Bothy band, telling the audience they would have to imagine the rest of the band as he did — although Dennis Cahill seems quite capable of generating excitement with his guitar playing.

Hayes has been lauded as an innovator of the tradition, and I have to say he is one of the most lyrical of Irish fiddle players that I've ever heard. The quality of the notes and his superb sense of how to stretch a phrase for maximum effect are awe inspiring. Every time I see him I'm impressed all over again. He expressed the tension between traditional playing and innovation during the show by telling how session players learn a tune, and then they forget its name, and perhaps don't remember it just as it was, so they change it slightly, and pretty soon they teach it to someone else, who gives it a different name, and a new tune is born. I suspect that today there are many players who are self-consciously writing within the tradition, but this seems like a fair description of how things go over time and why "trad., arr" is such a popular composer. There were several brilliant and spirited numbers at the beginning of the second set, almost as if a fire had been lit within both men. On his Web site, Hayes quotes his liner notes to express his view of the relationship between the wild and the contemplative sides of the tradition in his playing.
"Things are sometimes more clearly understood by direct experience of their opposite. Fast music gives added dimension to slower music and vice-versa, wild passion gives meaning to gentle delicacy. Innovation and tradition have a similar relationship. They are mutually inclusive. In concert we try not to exclude any particular aspect of the music. We are always seeking an equilibrium between these seemingly opposing perspectives. Our allegiance is to the spirit of the moment."

If you have the chance, run, don't walk, to buy tickets.

"Gypsy gold shines in the sun and whinnies in the darkness." This saying was one of many little folklore gems that set the mood for the Cavalia, an extravaganza of human and equine acrobatics that draws heavily on the romantic notions about horses that persist in our cultural imagination. Created by one of the founding members of Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia is a marvel of the relationship between horses and their human companions. The show boasts 33 horses and 30 human performers, listing all by name in the program. It opens with a few quarter horses meandering and galloping across the stage, followed by some "primitive" acrobats and trainers. It's certainly worth seeing for the athletic feats performed by both species, everything from Percherons galloping around the circus ring while acrobats perform feats on their backs to the more formal dressage with Lusitanos, and some entertaining rough riders on quarter horses.

One notable act has female acrobats suspended from a high scaffold, while a male acrobat and horse proceed around a circular enclosure, performing some astonishingly coordinated and wildly improbable feats. Another has three Lusitano stallions performing together with their trainer, their long manes flowing, displaying not only remarkable cooperation between the horses but a great deal of trust in their trainer. I also loved the rough-riding quarter horses who galloped back and forth across the stage with the humans initially hidden behind their bodies, then popping up, back and around. Breathtaking. Other acts included three sets of three connected horses with the riders on one, thundering around the stage and performing jumping tricks. There were a couple of dreamy dressage sequences with the Lusitanos and some female riders that conjured up pre-Raphaelite paintings and that wistful nostalgia that we associate with medieval myths.

This is a great show, with fine live musical performances, great acrobats, incredibly trained animals, and good multimedia. Apparently the musicians must be prepared to adjust for any reluctance on the part of the horses to perform their scheduled feats, as the show does not include any coercion of the animals. While Cavalia is appropriate for all ages, the audience consisted mostly of adults — no doubt due to the fact that I went on a week night, the show began at 8 pm, and it lasted a little over 2 hours, including the intermission. I'd advise trying to get seats in the center, as the stage is quite wide, making it difficult to see what's happening on the opposite side — although the acts are clearly balanced in terms of the action. Well worth the admission price, it's truly a memorable show.

Tommy Makem and LOKA
Hugh's Room has become one of my favorite Toronto venues for the quality of the acts, and its willingness to host such a variety of folk and world acts, as well as supporting independent musicians. Seeing Tommy Makem takes you back to the time when folksongs were straightforward, and sing alongs were expected. It's sad to think how many of the great performers of the 60s folk music revival have gone on, and wonderful to see such a beloved performer enjoying himself. Mind you, with Evans and Doherty in from Nova Scotia as a backup band, the evening was bound to be memorable.

And you've heard about the opening act before in this review, as LOKA is the name that Loretto Read, October Brown, Kelly Hood and Ann Lederman chose after their launch at the Women's International Celtic Conference! They did mostly the same set, with highlights including "The Mortgage Burn," featuring Kelly's piping , Ann's singing a Newfoundland version of "The Foggy Dew" that has shed its martial theme, some amazing tin whistle and flute playing by Loretto, including a very nice air, and finishing with the Galtee ranger. The foursome seemed quite comfortable with one another, and had clearly taken the time to arrange the tunes and pace the concert for maximum effect. I'm sure they're incredible musicians solo, but they're also great as an ensemble. Here's hoping that we see more of LOKA!

Tommy Makem opened the concert with a quip about being home — or maybe that he should be in a home, but it's obvious this old codger has not lost a bit of his edge, and that he really enjoys playing. Several songs were preceded by remarks like "This song's been beaten and kicked around, and still a great song for all that," in acknowledgement of the way that Makem's songs have diffused to so many performers (and indeed probably many kitchen and shower singers as well). The audience was very appreciative and prepared to sing along. My companion was surprised at the simplicity of the songs, and I couldn't help but think of the way that a generation earlier, the Weavers also took very simple folk songs and made them into something more. Highlights included "Wild Colonial Boy," "Nancy Whiskey," a Pete Seeger song whose name escapes me, and many others, all delivered with relish. If you like Irish songs, go see Tommy Makem, it's an experience to remember.

Well, that's it for this folkie. I've always loved the live acts best, despite my ever-growing collection of discs and wish list of must-have recorded items. But really, nothing beats the real thing, so take my advice and get out there and hear some music! Support your local venues, and let all those hard-working vagabonds know that you appreciate the magic of the music.

[Kim Bates]

You can learn more about Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill at Hayes' Web site.
You can find more information on Cavalia at their Web site.
Tommy Makem also has a Web site with more information.