Bards & Ballads
at Wagmatcook Culture & Heritage Centre,
Wagmatcook, NS
(12 October 2004)

My true love on Cape Breton Island is the fiddle, the ceilidh tradition and the lively dance music that drives the blood and makes the Celtic heart beat faster.

Still, every year at Celtic Colours I'm drawn irrevocably to Bards & Ballads, the festival's annual paean to storytelling in song. The spotlight on singer-songwriters always brings some amazing local and international talent to the Wagmatcook Culture & Heritage Centre stage, and this year was no different. The only disappointment was that Buddy MacDonald, who introduced the five renowned singers in the lineup, was not himself among the evening's performers.

But let's be honest, the plate was full with five phenomenal singers: David Francey, a native Scotsman relocated to Quebec; James Keelaghan, from Alberta; Scotland's Dougie MacLean; shining Cape Breton star Rita MacNeil; and Gordie Sampson who, like MacNeil, hails from the Big Pond region. Three singers also played guitar; Francey was accompanied by Terry Tufts, while MacNeil employed the talents of Chris Corrigan.

The gift that these performers share goes beyond a good singing voice and a deft hand with a guitar. They each have the ability to form stories in song, to place images clearly in the mind's eye of everyone who listens.

Tuesday's performers took turns on the Wagmatcook stage, each singing four songs of their own composition in an intimate setting that belied the size of the auditorium. Each song dug deeply, relating a specific incident or a more general anecdote, fostering understanding of a feeling or opinion, sharing a memory of a person or moment in time, and of course love.

Keelaghan got the evening going with "Hillcrest Mine," a song about the mining disaster. Later, turning to a terrible 1949 Montana forest fire, he sang a powerful "Cold Missouri Waters." "You have proved yourself perspicacious in the art of chorusing," he said, asking for the audience to do it again on "Sing My Heart Home."

Francey's first song was his "Red-Winged Blackbird." Sticking with an avian theme, he later sang "The Waking Hour," a dark song that uses crows as an ill omen in marriage, then he ran afoul of various major deities on mass transit on "Morning Train."

Headliner MacLean has made many appearances this week, so this was my second time hearing "Not Lie Down" with its sing-along chorus. "Ready for the Storm," one of my favorite MacLean songs, was wryly dedicated to himself after a rough landing in Halifax and wild ride to Cape Breton through a leg of Tropical Storm Nicole. "The Boat Men," about Scottish emigrants who found homes in Australia after settling first in St. Ann's, Cape Breton, was written four years earlier at Celtic Colours; it got an enthusiastic reception in Wagmatcook.

MacNeil, a self-confessed graveyard haunter, began with "Knowing When to Go," then explored her roots in Barra with "The Crossing." "I don't know when I've had such a wonderful night," she said before singing "Please Believe Me" and later slipping into a bit of gospel.

Sampson, one of the festivals artists in residence, shared "Waves," a song written with Fred Lavery, then expounded on his "Fear of Flying" and his experiences in "Paris." His final song, "Grampa's Remedy," was inspired by a Celtic Colours hangover and made use of some interesting country guitar licks for emphasis.

Local favorite Bruce Guthro, now fronting the Scottish band Runrig, made a special guest appearance, singing a "happy song about death and divorce," featuring a "two-timing alcoholic pig." The humorous song "Joe" was inspired by a friend's sad tale of lost love.

While some shows in the Celtic Colours series strive for variety, Bards & Ballads brings together several masters of a single genre, highlighting the differences among them, certainly, but also drawing a line around their common ground.

For the finale, MacLean rallied the troops to join him on his sentimental song "Love Will Carry."

Let's face it, we're all not likely to be lucky enough to sit in on a cozy house party with singers of this caliber and diversity. Barring such a grand stroke of fortune, the annual Bards & Ballads series is the next best thing.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 11 December 2004

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