Celtic Colours wrap-up: Oct. 18-19 — In Good Company, Pipers’ Ceilidh

The final two days of the 2013 Celtic Colours International Festival were a whirlwind of activity - for us, anyway. On Friday we took a short trip along part of the Cabot Trail and a tiny section of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park before having dinner at the Glendora Distillery between Mabou and Inverness, and then taking in a top-notch show that highlighted the Nordic-Celtic connection at the Inverness Academy.

In Good Company

Mikael Marin and Olov Johansson of Vasen with Dawn & Margie Beaton

The program was titled “In Good Company,” and although it wasn’t a sold-out house, it was quite close at nearly 500. In contrast to most of the other shows we saw this week, this one had a high proportion of locals in the audience. That was no doubt due to the presence of some popular local acts on the bill, including the sibling foursome Company Road. Mitch, Gordie, Brennan and Kelly Jean MacDonald hail from just down the road in Port Hood, and although they currently sing and play more of a contemporary country sound, they grew up on Cape Breton-style Celtic music and dance. They told some touching stories of growing up in a big family and sang a short set of mid-tempo country-folk. They got their parents, Cecil and Mary Jane MacDonald (herself a step-dancing legend on Cape Breton Island’s west coast) on stage to sing the sentimental “This Old House,” and did a nice, slowed-down version of “Wild Mountain Thyme.”

Half of the show was given over to Nordic acts, starting with Finns Antti and Arto Järvelä, who played fiddles and guitar (Antti) on a short set of Finnish traditional and contemporary folk music. The setlist included lots of polskas, some waltzes and a polonaise or two, in addition to a tango-influenced piece he wrote during a tour of South America - it was a woozy hangover of a tune that slid back and forth between waltz and double-waltz time.

The other half of the Nordic program was filled by one of my favorite folk acts from any part of the world, the Swedish trio Väsen. They electrified the crowd with their driving, rhythmic music and their high-volume, full sound created by Roger Tallroth’s 12-string guitar, Mikael Marin’s five-string viola and Olov Johansson’s modern nyckelharpa. Their set had several tunes from their 2013 album Mindset including the whimsical HundlĂĄten (“the dog song”) which Marin wrote while on a walk with his Spanish waterdog; and the “Carl Linnaeus Polonaise” from their 2007 Linnaeus Väsen disc. It was the fifth time I’ve seen these guys, and I’m not tired of them yet; this was their first trip to Celtic Colours but I suspect they’ll be invited back, judging from all the whooping and hollering during their set and the sustained applause at its conclusion from folks hoping for an encore - something that rarely happens at Celtic Colours.

The evening was anchored by the Beaton Sisters Band, helmed by the popular Margie and Dawn Beaton of Mabou. The two played only fiddle this night and did some step-dancing, although Dawn also plays piano and Margie mandolin. Piper Kenneth MacKenzie of Mabou and pianist Jason Roach of Cheticamp (also of Sprag Session) rounded out the sound behind these champions of Gaelic fiddle music. They played a strong set of jig-and-reel sets with the band and as a duo and also did a step-dance duet that had the crowd on its feet. Dawn, by the way, has been named artistic director of the festival for the 2014 season, after serving for a few years as assistant director. Here’s a good example of the way Dawn and Margie sound as a duet, on “Just Jigs” from their debut CD Dawn & Margie Beaton.

For the grand finale, all the musicians played a long medley of Finnish, Swedish and Celtic tunes and songs, including a hilarious rendition of Abba’s “Take a Chance With Me” sung by the kids from Company Road.

Pipers’ Ceilidh

five highland bagpipe players

The pipers of Nuallan

It’s not a Celtic Colours festival without a Pipers’ Ceilidh at the end, and this was a good (and loud) one at its traditional spot, the auditorium at the Gaelic College near St. Ann’s. Matt MacIsaac (who also plays with Mairi Rankin and Mac Morin and is touring with Natalie MacMaster) opened the proceedings in full Scottish regalia in a solo performance on the highland pipes, with a suite that included an air and three jigs on a lovely low whistle. He was followed by a Toronto-based trio, North Atlantic Drift, with Ross Griffiths swapping off between Scottish and Uilleann pipes and playing a mix of Irish and Scottish tunes accompanied by fiddle and guitar. The featured set was by the Gaelic College’s pipers’ group Nuallan, whose spokesman was Kenneth MacKenzie from the Dawn & Margie band. This group included five highland pipers plus a rhythm section of piano (Tracey Dares MacNeil), guitar (Patrick Gillis) and drums (Kyle MacDonald). Three of the pipers also came out front to do some step-dancing, too. Let’s just say my ears are still ringing nearly eight hours later!

Celtic Colours surely deserves its reputation as one of the top folk music festivals in the world. It is well-organized, and staffed by hundreds of knowledgeable and friendly volunteers. The entertainment, whether drawn from the immensely talented local pool or invited from abroad, is almost invariably top-notch. And it’s set in one of North America’s most beautiful locations at its most beautiful time of year. Kudos to this year’s Artists in Residence Harald Haugaard and Kimberley Fraser for helping to curate another successful festival and for setting the creative bar so high; and to executive director Jouella Foulds and artistic director Dawn Beaton for their organizational and creative energy. And a big thanks to information officer Dave Mahalik for clearing the way for the Green Man Review to attend, and congratulations to him on the release of his book about the Celtic Colours experience Ten Nights Without Sleep.

And for now, I’m off to listen to some music that doesn’t have any fiddles in it, for just a while.

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