J.P. Cormier, Dave MacIsaac,
Bob MacLean & Scott Macmillan,
at the Guitar Summit,
Celtic Colours International Festival,
Judique Community Center,
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
(12 October 2000)

At Celtic Colours, it's easy to find fiddlers at work. After all, Cape Breton boasts having more fiddlers per square mile than any other place in the world, and that number jumps dramatically during this international music festival.

It doesn't take much effort to find singers, either -- vocalists celebrating the island and its Celtic roots in both English and Gaelic are everywhere you look.

But guitarists, although present at most shows, are usually relegated to supporting roles, providing an intricate foundation for someone else's performance. But that certainly wasn't the case on this Thursday evening in Judique, where four of Cape Breton's top guitarists showed a standing-room-only crowd what guitars can do on their own.

The Guitar Summit illuminated the skills of four grand performers: J.P. Cormier, Dave MacIsaac, Bob MacLean and Scott Macmillan. The stage was simple -- just four men seated in a row. Playing in unison and as soloists, the four men wowed the audience with intricate displays of fingerwork.

The show began with a massive wall of sound as all four jammed, meshing seamlessly as they passed the spotlight among them, sometimes working in concert and sometimes giving one or another the melody. Then, with Macmillan acting as emcee, the guitarists took turns, playing alone or, in several cases, inviting the others to join in with impromptu rhythms and harmonies. Often, solo pieces became ensemble sets as the others figured out the right chord progressions and leapt into the fray, adding layers of music which were so note perfect they seemed rehearsed.

MacLean took the first solo slot, playing "Celtino" with a percussive beginning before slipping into complicated stylings based on tunes including "I'll Tell Me Ma" and "Red-Haired Mary." MacIsaac was next with a medley of strathspeys in F, on which Cormier, then the others, provided support.

Cormier then took center stage for a dizzying solo set of Doc Watson tunes. Macmillan ended the first round with "Neil Gow's Lament for His Second Wife" and a set of original house tunes.

And so it continued throughout the night, as the men took turns and joined forces in a broad variety of Cape Breton and other musical styles. After a brief intermission, they even took a few moments to introduce their instruments to the crowd.

Although practically neighbors on Cape Breton, Cormier noted, he and his fellow guitarists rarely see each other, much less perform together, so the Guitar Summit was a treat for them all. Indeed, their delight and mutual admiration was plainly evident on-stage.

The Guitar Summit was sold out long in advance, but the right connections -- in this case, Celtic Colours driver Darryl MacDonald and a handful of friendly, cooperative festival officials -- found us a pair of the coveted tickets. Good fortune for us -- this was not a show to miss! Anyone with even the slightest belief that acoustic guitars belong in the background of a tune set had their minds changed during this performance.

Although one guitarist seated near me complained that the combination of four guitars turned at times into a muddy hodgepodge of strings, that seemed to be a minority view among the hundreds of music lovers at the show. While a guitar quartet may not be the norm in music circles, these masterful performers certainly succeeded in bringing their instrument to the forefront of this crowd's attention.

[ by Tom Knapp ]