Whycocomagh Gathering,
Celtic Colours 2001
at Whycocomagh Consolidated School,
Cape Breton, NS
(6 October 2001)

The Whycocomagh Gathering (that's "why-CAW-cuh-muh," for those of you who are having pronounciation troubles) has definitely become one of the favorites among Celtic Colours festival-goers. This was clearly in evidence at this year's concert, with more than 600 packed into the gymnasium at the recently constructed Whycocomagh Consolidated School. This year's gathering featured Scottish performers Brian McNeill and Phil Cunningham as well as Cape Breton's own Howie MacDonald.

Brian McNeill, former member of Scotland's famed Battlefield Band, kicked off the evening with a fine set. Master of a variety of instruments, as well as being an animated storyteller, McNeill's easy-going style was an excellent introduction to the spirited performers to come, and certainly on par, talent-wise. From the religiously controversial (according to McNeill's report) "Sunday on the Jar" to a fantastic set of Gow tunes on the electric fiddle, McNeill had the attention (and often the guffawing laughter) of the audience.

McNeill has a wonderful talent for storytelling and his songs and tunes were interspersed with anecdotes chock full of cheeky Scottish humour. A versatile performer, McNeill treated the audience to a mix of styles -- from strong ballads and rowdier pub songs to fiddle tunes, there was something in the performance to please just about everyone.

McNeill's performance was followed by well-known Cape Breton fiddler Howie MacDonald, who delighted his audience with both wit and tunes. From fluid and graceful airs, such as "My Cape Breton Home," to lengthy, fast-paced sets of reels, MacDonald never seemed to waver in the enjoyment of his music (just one of the things that marks him among my favorite performers). Ably accompanied by Joel Chiasson on piano, the duo gave a crowd-pleasing performance, the never-ending sets punctuated by smooth, well-coordinated key changes.

Of course, a concert involving Howie MacDonald just wouldn't be complete without a bit of dancing. Judging from the sea of bobbing heads and tapping feet, there were quite a few armchair dancers in the audience to begin with. However, MacDonald's "most recent" sister, Cheryl, also provided an energetic set of steps, earning bonus points (in my book) for sheer endurance, let alone style!

With the crowd all fired up by MacDonald's performance, I wondered if Phil Cunningham would be able to keep them entertained. You see, I still have visions of my father's polka-style accordion playing from my childhood, which was ... well, energetic, but not exactly in the same way. Cunningham, however, is a force to be reckoned with. Not only that, but he was accompanied by Ian McFarlane and Alan Henderson from Blazin' Fiddles, the group that rocked the Whycocomagh Gathering last year. Cunningham, like the evening's other performers, is also blessed with fantastic storytelling abilities and a formidable stage presence.

Although I did recognize quite a few of Cunningham's anecdotes from the previous night's Opening Gala, he did add some new material -- and even the "old" stuff was still uproariously funny. Although I don't normally listen to a lot of accordion music, I would gladly hear more of Phil Cunningham. He is truly gifted at his instrument, playing with flair and enthusiasm (not to mention his amazing varied chording style, which alone adds to the effect), well complemented by McFarlane and Henderson's zippy fiddling. They had a knack for breaking into a set of tunes while the audience's laughter was still fresh, adding to the already upbeat sets. Harmonies between fiddles and accordion were abundant, enhancing the overall sound.

The evening was capped off by a final set featuring all of the evening's performers. This is one characteristic of the Celtic Colours festival that I really enjoy. It is wonderful to hear several performers who do not normally play together combine their talents on one stage, and it always makes for a unique sound. In the case of these fine musicians, the result was an excellent blast of tunes, complemented by a set of steps by Cheryl MacDonald and Joel Chiasson. It would be easy to mistakenly assume that these folks play together every day.

Regardless of the fact that the music was excellent, the concert did have one drawback. With such wonderful talents present, I rather expected that I would see more interaction between them. Brian McNeill, Howie MacDonald and Phil Cunningham are three individuals with a great sense of humour to add to their musical talents, and I was rather disappointed not to have seen them together on stage for longer. If each of them managed to entertain and amuse the audience so well on their own, I can only imagine what their combined wit would muster. However, I am still imagining. Aside from this untapped resource, the three performers all had one thing in common -- they were all having fun, and that enjoyment was certainly contagious!

[ by Cheryl Turner ]
Rambles: 27 October 2001