Sean McGuire, Buddy
MacMaster, Blazin' Fiddles, et al,
at Fiddlers' Heaven,
Celtic Colours International Festival,
Judique Community Center,
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
(9 October 2000)

Buddy MacMaster is the undisputed master of Cape Breton-style fiddling. Sean McGuire is a legend among Irish fiddlers. When the two men, both in their 70s and still going strong, were brought together for a joint performance at the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, it's reasonable to expect an enthusiastic crowd in attendance.

The excitement as people packed into the Community Center in Judique (MacMaster's Cape Breton hometown) was a tangible thing in the air. And things only got better as the evening drew on; as expected, MacMaster and McGuire combined to make musical magic.

Joining the two men on stage for Fiddlers' Heaven -- just one show among many during the weeklong Celtic Colours festival -- were Maryland native David Greenberg, who relocated to Halifax and spearheaded the Cape Breton/baroque style with the band Puirt a Baroque; Irish-American fiddler Brendan Mulvihill; and the Blazin' Fiddles, a high-energy fiddle sextet from Scotland.

With a backdrop of a giant fiddle and Scottish tartans lining the walls, the hall was transformed into a literal Fiddlers' Heaven. Greenberg, performing with keyboardist Doug MacPhee, led things off with a series of foot-stomping strathspeys, reels and other tunes which got the audience bobbing and stomping along from the very beginning. He was "in awe" of the fiddlers coming up in the program, Greenberg admitted, but his flawless performance certainly got the program off on the right foot.

Brendan Mulvihill, a native of Ireland's County Limerick, was next. His equally lively set was accompanied by guitar instead of piano and, while Mulvihill himself was less likely to stomp along with the tunes than Greenberg, his audience certainly made up for the difference. A highlight in his performance was the accelerating set of reels ending with "The Wooden Wife," a Mulvihill original named by his former girlfriend (now his wife) in a fit of pique over his musical obsession.

You might assume that a set of fiddlers, even masters such as these, would get tiresome or repetitive after a while. But that was hardly the case on this blustery Monday evening in the small town of Judique. Even timeless traditional tunes gained new life and style under the highly skillful bows and fingers of these musicians, each of whom deserves a pedestal among the ranks of the finest in their craft.

One of the highest pedestals is reserved for Buddy MacMaster, one of Cape Breton's most acclaimed musicians. There was applause even as MacMaster walked through the auditorium and headed backstage during a break in Mulvihill's set.

MacMaster closed the first half of the program, pairing up with Joey Beaton on keyboards. Distinguished and nattily suited for his performance, MacMaster promised his audience to "do the best I can here." He certainly did his hometown proud, beginning with a jig dedicated to the late Rankin Family member John Morris Rankin, a Judique resident and native of nearby Mabou, who was killed recently in a car accident.

Playing with a spriteliness and stamina which belied his 70-odd years, MacMaster used a crib sheet to rattle off the names of the tunes in his lengthy sets. There were too many titles, he confided to the audience, to remember them all. For their part, audience members sat in rapt attention but in constant motion throughout MacMaster's performance; somehow, 500-plus pairs of feet were tapping without creating enough noise to diminish or distract from the amazing fiddle work on stage. Obviously, Cape Breton never tires of this highly favored son.

Every performer in the show got a standing ovation at the end of his set. That tells you something about the caliber of the performers and the appreciation of the audience.

After a short intermission to let everyone catch their breath, the Blazin' Fiddles filled the room with a mighty wall of sound. Six Scottish fiddlers -- Bruce MacGregor, Catriona MacDonald, Duncan Chisholm, Alan Henderson, Iain MacFarlane and Aiden O'Rourke -- were joined by keyboardist Andy Thorburn and guitarist Mark Clement for a powerful set of Shetland tunes, Scottish reels and pieces drawn from traditional Gaelic waulking songs. The six fiddles combined for a full sound and incredible synchroneity (with sporadic spotlights and duets to prove no one was faking it), playing at times in perfect unison and at others in a dizzying array of complementary harmonies.

And then it was time for Sean McGuire. The 73-year-old Belfast native, ravaged by illnesses which claimed his voice, appeared before the crowd in a suit and red bowtie, accompanied by his loyal and fun-loving trio: Patsy McCabe on piano, Pierce McKinnon on accordion and Pat Conroy on guitar.

With his bow literally dancing across the strings with astonishing grace, rapidfire tempo changes and ornamental embellishments making every note a Sean McGuire signature, this grand musician captivated the crowd from first beat to last. The too-brief performance included countless variations to "The Resting Chair," a unique rendition of "Ashokan Farewell" and a startling reinterpretation of "The Mathematician," which McGuire first recorded in much simpler form many years ago. A set of Hungarian gypsy tunes did not seem at all out of place.

In a rare scene, McGuire took the microphone to thank the people who made this performance possible. His voice long gone, a victim of throat cancer, he rasped the words with amazing heartfelt sincerity. Then he reclaimed his fiddle for more music.

All too soon, McGuire's showcase came to an end -- following a final packet of tunes played at dizzying speed and with dazzling dexterity.

But the show wasn't over yet. No, McGuire returned to the stage to perform a pair of medley duets with MacMaster -- duets which seemed to flow with the practiced ease of long-time partners, not men who'd just met that day and had only a scant few minutes of rehearsal time. Although the finale was brief, it was powerful, glorious stuff, the likes of which fiddle legends are made.

If the fates are kind, McGuire and MacMaster will play together again someday. If not, several hundred fans have memories of a magical moment in Judique when two titans came together in perfect harmony.

[ by Tom Knapp ]