Flicking the switch

Midway through last week’s Celtic Colours schedule, a viral video from the Celtic Heart of North America program summed up the effect the festival has across Cape Breton.

The carefully-staged clip features Mairi Rankin and Wendy MacIsaac playing fiddle tunes to a packed full house at The Red Shoe in Mabou. Curiously, it’s also a silent full house; patrons are staring blankly at the fiddlers, chatting quietly with each other, checking their phones, and in one hard-to-miss moment, letting out a huge yawn.

The camera pans back to the fiddlers, who decide to shift to another tune. The second Mairi and Wendy launch into “Malcolm Finley,” the Shoe crowd explodes. They’re clapping, cheering, pounding the tables, even dancing in the few available portions of free space.

It’s Celtic Colours in a nutshell. We’ve got great music, venues, people, hospitality and communities across Cape Breton all year long, And yet, this event seems to flick the switch on all of that and send the excitement into overdrive.

I got lucky enough to see that happen on four different fronts around the Strait area this year, beginning at the Evergreen Seniors Club in Port Hawkesbury, as Cathy and I co-hosted the latest edition of the Celtic Colours community event known as the “Ship Harbour Song Session.”

Through three hours and 15 minutes of individual and group singing, we heard it all. We saw singers from areas as diverse as Cheticamp, Mulgrave, Maine, and Scotland, and visitors from Ottawa, Alberta, Rhode Island, Georgia, Florida, and West Virginia. We had requests for deeply-rooted songwriters – Allister MacGillivray, Denis Ryan, Stan Rogers – and more recent arrivals like Glace Bay’s Wendy Markey.

We saw Port Hawkesbury’s Sandy MacLean emerge as a crowd favourite, opening with “The Legend of Kelly’s Mountain” but then getting requests for his beloved parody song “8 O’Clock and Mabou” and the Gaelic version of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” which he had played 24 hours earlier at the “Ceilidh at the Causeway” hosted by the Port Hastings Museum.

And, in one of the most astounding Celtic Colours moments I’ve ever seen, we saw a boisterous group of Prairie visitors deliver a show-stopping rendition of “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate,” an early hit for the musical-comedy band The Arrogant Worms.

The switch was flicked.

Arguably, it had been flicked the night before at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre, as Natalie MacMaster, Donnell Leahy and their insanely-talented children set the island abuzz with their festival-opening performance. When they delivered a similar show-stopping all-in-the-family set at the same venue six years ago, I joked that “Natalie’s kids are going to be running Celtic Colours someday.” Perhaps that day is closer than I expected.

Mind you, the folks running Celtic Colours now, in different communities around the Strait area, are still delivering the goods. The L’Ardoise Men’s Club proved that on two occasions this week, as they once again partnered with Lobsters ‘R’ Us in Little Harbour for the sold-out Tuesday afternoon community event “Sounds and Supper By The Sea.”

Two nights later, at the L’Ardoise Community Centre that significantly upgraded its abilities to host top-flight music and arts events due to the efforts of the Men’s Club just over a decade ago, River Tillard’s Donna-Marie DeWolfe set the hall ablaze with her fired-up fiddle performance as part of “A Full Slate” (a nod to the actual origin of L’Ardoise’s name).

She was bookended by veteran Scottish Gaelic singers Margaret Bennett and Norman Kennedy – the latter of which surprised me by asking me a couple of questions in French – and the five-man Acadian whirlwind known as Cy, which mixed everything from self-deprecating humour (“My Acadian Flag Came From Taiwan”) to foot-stomping melodies and, in the biggest surprise of the night, a tender recreation of the Simon and Garfunkel classic “El Condor Pasa.”

At the other end of Richmond County, the Riverdale Community Centre in Lower River Inhabitants was full to the brim with lively music as the Irish-American trio Socks In The Frying Pan delivered a delightful mix of vocals, fiddle, button-accordion and guitar for the second half of the concert known as “A Touch Of The Irish.”

Earlier in the evening, Arichat’s Delores Boudreau dedicated her touching song “2:22” to the memories of Jean and Blair McNamara, two sorely-missed pillars of the community. And, shortly before Mairi Rankin – yes, one of the Red Shoe viral-video stars – took the stage for her set with cellist Eric Wright, I got one of my favourite little joys of the entire festival by making her laugh with a lame cello joke.

And that was just my own Celtic Colours experience, folks. Here’s hoping the switches flicked across Cape Breton Island over the past two weeks will keep us inspired through the rest of the fall and beyond.