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Celtic Colours Festival Review - October 2017
Sunday November 5, 2017

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I was thrilled to be invited to attend this year's Celtic Colours Festival, the 21st annual celebration of the musical roots and spectacular scenery of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton island. Margaret and I took the red-eye flight on Saturday October 7th - having watched the Saturday concert from the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay online from the comfort of our Coop. Arriving in Sydney at noon on Sunday we were offered a free upgrade of the rental car from a Kia Rio to a Mustang Convertible. No contest! What an amazing vehicle. Even using premium gas (at $1.15 per litre) it was well worth it. I wished I'd brought driving gloves, though. Had the top down most of the time (well, you would, wouldn't you?) and my hands were freezing!

The Sunday concert we had chosen was just down the road from our motel in Baddeck, but we had some trouble finding the place. Well, you try asking Siri to direct you to Whycocomagh! My media pass was supposed to be at the front desk. It wasn't. We were sat right at the back of the huge school gym, but the sound was fine, and I managed to sneak a few photos from time to time. The feature artists were the brilliant new trio of Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and John Doyle, Cape Breton's Coig (my favourite Canadian Celtic band), and Garnet Rogers - making his Celtic Colours debut. Local schoolteacher and singer songwriter Lisa Cameron also gave us an excellent set. When we returned to the Mustang we were amazed to see the silver horse projected onto the road when we opened the door! 

The next day was another sunny one, and we set off for St. Anne's Gaelic College at the entrance to the Cabot Trail for a Brunch and Showcase. Heather Rankin was on first. Great set. What a fine voice she has, and great fun too. Next was local Celtic band The Narrows, and then young Cape Breton songwriter Jordan Muscycsyn (Musician) gave a spirited set of songs, featuring local fiddler Colin Grant. Afterwards we set off on the first part of the Trail, to the top of Smokey Point. Great fun, once we got past the roadworks. We didn't have time to complete the circuit (takes about 4 hours if you don't stop, and why would you drive it if you didn't stop? Amazing road!)

We returned via the Englishtown ferry to avoid those roadworks and made it out to the enormous Membertou Trade & Convention Centre for Thanksgiving Dinner and then the Celtic Cabaret show, with The Alt (Irish flautist / singer Nuala Kennedy, with John Doyle and Eamon O'Leary), Cape Breton fiddler Jennifer RolandJordan Muscycsyn again, and, topping the bill, PEI's Ten Strings & A Goatskin. The stage is big and the show was very flashy, including funky LED lights and a smoke machine - which set off the fire alarm at the break! They managed to convince everyone to stay in the room, and Rowan Gallant started the Goats' set by mimicking the fire alarm on his fiddle. Great fun, and they also jammed with Colin Grant at the end.

Tuesday began with breakfast at the Silver Dart Lodge and then a "Delegates / Artists Mixer" at the Inverary Resort on the shore of Bras d'Or Lake. This gave me the chance to make excellent contacts with the likes of Sean Laffey (Irish Music magazine), Elaine Grieve (Orkney Folk Festival), Bev Burton (Cambridge Folk Festival), Tom O'Connell (Milwaukee Irish Fest), Mhari Pottinger (Shetland Folk Festival), Lisa Schwartz (Philadelphia Folk Festival) and Andreas Svensson (Sweden's Folk At Heart and Nordlek Festivals). BC was well-represented with Michelle Demers-Shaevitz (Mission Folk Festival), John Krieger (Festival du Bois) and Sue Judge (Coldsnap Festival, Prince George) joining us for delicious canapés like Digby scallops! 

We then took the Mustang back over Kelly's Mountain to Sydney for Lobster Chowder at the Yacht Club and then off to Sydney River's Our Lady of Fatima - a huge new church - for Songs From Scratch. Canadian songwriters Lynn Miles, Bruce Guthro, Cathleen MacLellan, James Keelaghan, Cara Luft & J.D. Edwards had been holed up in a resort for a week to write new songs together. They presented all these songs over the two sets. All new, the final one only written that day, so they all needed song sheets to get through it, but it was an amazing experience. They are such great songwriters!


Wednesday was a glorious day, so we took the ferry across Bras d'Or Lake and drove to Iona Highland Village, which recreates living spaces from 250 years of Scottish settlement in Cape Breton, with local actors in character and period costume, primed with enthralling personal tales of life during the Highland clearances and the struggles to establish themselves in the new world. I even got to participate in a Milling Frolic, where local singers chant the rhythmic songs as the workers pound the wool onto a wooden table to soften it for local looms. It's a wonderful living museum!

We then drove to the east side of the island to Louisbourg, home of another incredible living museum on the site of the 18th century French fortress. We didn't go to the fortress this time, and there was only one restaurant open as this is the tail end of the season - even with Celtic Colours in town. A short walk to the Playhouse - erected by Disney as a replica of Shakespeare's Globe, and given to the town as a legacy gift - brought us to another fabulous concert, with local songwriter Roger Stone followed by New England fiddler Hanneke Cassel and the new supergroup Imar (E-mah, not eye-mah): Tomas Callister (supreme fiddler with Barrule, from Isle Of Man), Adam Rhodes (also from Barrule, on bouzouki), uilleann piper Ryan Murphy, Scots concertina wizard Mohsen Amini (Talisk) and England's Adam Brown (Rura) on bodhran and guitar. Virtuosi one and all! It was quite the finale, I tell you, and then a long drive back to Baddeck in the dark (with the top up!)  

Thursday took us to another fine museum, The Bell Museum in Baddeck, for a concert with The Small Glories. Alexander Graham Bell made his home just across the lake from Baddeck and his incredible feats of engineering and design are celebrated in the museum (including Canada's first powered aircraft, The Silver Dart). We then headed south to Nyanza to the Big Spruce Brewery where Rachel Davis and Darren McMullen of Coig were playing in the cosy annex. Great beer, and good tunes! Then we went for a sumptuous lobster supper in Baddeck with Michelle Demers-Shaevitz and our good friend Brad Keithley from Alaska.

The evening concert was probably the best of the lot! Deep Roots, Many Branches started with Mairi Rankin (fiddle) and Ailie Robertson (harp) from the band The Outside Track, followed by Irish fiddler Fergal Scahill (We Banjo 3) and pianist Ryan Molloy. I don't think I've ever heard so many notes in such a short space of time! After the break, Mairi was joined by Wendy MacIsaac (fiddle) and Mac Morin (piano) and then came Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell! Michelle and I had met these two at the Festival Club the previous night (morning!) and I asked Rhiannon to sing her Gaelic puirt a beul. When she sang this the room went mad! Here was a young African-American woman singing in Gaelic a song she'd learned in a North Carolina village where they still speak Gaelic!  She also danced, fiddled, banjo-ed and generally brought the house down. What a show!

We spent our last full day driving the Cabot Trail to Margaree Harbour and then headed down to Mabou, stopping at the wonderful Glenora Distillery for fish cakes and chowder. Whilst visiting The Rankin Sisters' famous Red Shoe Pub in Mabou I received a call from the Celtic Colours office asking me to do a photo shoot with Nashville banjo diva Alison Brown at the concert that night, so we zoomed off to the other side of the island only to find that they wanted the shoot at the intermission, so we just about had time to head over to the excellent Flavour Restaurant up the road (the one in the cruise ship terminal was sold out) before the Big Ceilidh At The Big Fiddle with J.P. Cormier, Dwayne Cote, Imar, Alison Brown Quartet, and Cherish The Ladies (with Irish fiddler Nollaig Casey in the band!) What a great show this was, too! A fitting end to our visit.

I watched a very dull soccer game between United and Liverpool the next morning and then we drove over Kelly's Mountain one last time before bidding a fond farewell to "Mustang Sally" and Celtic Colours and Cape Breton. The TV ads for Cape Breton say "your heart will never leave". i think they may be right.

You can see over 100 photographic memories of our trip on my FlickR page