Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘Mary Jane Lamond’

The Soul of the Celts

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

October 25, 2009

When Marjorie’s sister Zoe and her husband Garney proposed to visit from BC, we suggested the week of Celtic Colours, with three concerts, lots of visiting and a tour through the blazing woodlands of the Cabot Trail.

Oddly enough, the concert in D’Escousse began with two BC teenagers, Qristina and Quinn Bachand, students of “the great Ashley MacIsaac.” It ended with Le Vent du Nord, a powerful, mediaeval-sounding band from Quebec. But the player whose presence accounted for the sell-out crowd was Ashley MacIsaac himself, accompanied by 13-year-old Quinn Bachand.

Cape Breton produces innumerable top-level fiddlers — but occasionally one emerges with a towering gift that continually ripens as the musician matures. People talk about them in slightly hushed tones: Dan R. MacDonald, Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald, Angus Chisholm. Ashley MacIsaac has gone through several phases — child prodigy, rocker, punk-fiddlin’ bad boy — but at 34, with a 20-year career already behind him, he is simply phenomenal. His interpretations of standard tunes are both faithful to the tradition and effervescent with fresh nuances and riffs. With non-traditional material — like “Listen to the Mockingbird” — he plays like a man possessed.

The Irish concert in Lower River Inhabitants starred two Gaelic singers and two fiddlers from the Ould Sod, Jimmy McBride and Eamonn Mac Donncha, Martin McGinley and Maire O’Keeffe. Cape Breton was represented by Andrea Beaton, whose smooth, hard-driving style led Marjorie to dub her “The Velvet Train.” The delightful discovery was Irish harpist Laoise Kelly, who improbably steered her other-worldly instrument from plangent airs to jumping jigs and red-hot reels.

The Glendale concert, headed by Mary Jane Lamond, brought back the Irish singers, along with fiddlers Doug Lamey and the Wendy MacIsaac. This is an intimate culture; Lamey’s grandfather was the renowned Bill Lamey, and the ever-entertaining Wendy MacIsaac is Ashley’s cousin, and in mid-concert Mary Jane crooked a finger and drew an audience member up to the stage to step-dance.

One of the most attractive features of the culture — and one of the secrets of its durability — is its easy inclusiveness. Tracy Dares plays big, bright, inventive piano music, and when Wendy asked her for a set, Tracy began with a slow air by Jerry Holland, a Bostonian who became a towering figure in Cape Breton and died last July at 54. Grief at his loss hung like a whiff of autumn smoke in all these concert halls.

The same inclusiveness creates an instinctive respect for the talents of children. Three generations are always visible in Cape Breton music: the venerable elders, the mid-life masters and the eager fledglings. Dan R. shares the stage with Sandy MacIntyre and a stripling named John Morris Rankin. A few years later, Buddy MacMaster and the Rankin Family share with Ashley and Wendy MacIsaac and their contemporaries. Now Ashley plays with Quinn Bachand.

Our visitors had wondered how many listeners actually understood Gaelic, and were fascinated to hear the low hum of dozens of people singing along with Mary Jane’s Gaelic songs. Knowing the language, Mary Jane knows the culture deeply, and her laconic accounts of the stories behind her songs were among the great pleasures of the evening.

Now I’d love to describe the scorching colours of the Highland hillsides, the pleasures of staying at the lovingly-restored MacNeil House at the Silver Dart in Baddeck and the Duncreigan Inn in Mabou. I want to praise the cooking at the Celtic Touch Bakery and Pizzeria in Dingwall, and evoke vistas of silver sea under black clouds, and the shock of finding three inches of wet snow on the road as we crept down French Mountain into Cheticamp. And I have no space to do that.

But I absolutely must report that we stopped for fishcakes and home-made beans at the Celtic Music Interpretation Centre in Judique, and the featured musician who played as we ate was Ashley MacIsaac. He was aflame that day, magnificent and generous, and I thought again of the paradox of Celtic music: that a people so shy and reserved should engender a music of such passion and abandon. These artists are the best in the world at what they do — and it is the hunger and discernment of their audiences that fires them.

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