It was a beautiful and warm, sunny day, as people filed into the Maberly Hall this past Sunday, to attend one of the Festival of Small Halls concerts. On the bill was our own Blue Skies Community Fiddle Orchestra (who use this very hall as a rehearsal space), opening for Nova Scotia's sibling duo, Cassie and Maggie.
The anticipation was in the air, especially for the orchestra itself, who are all members of the community at large, and who were thrilled to be a part of this festival.
Conductor Cindy McCall led the orchestra through a set of carefully chosen and arranged tunes, which began with a waltz written by the late Canadian fiddling composer and mentor, Oliver Schroer, and culminated with a rollicking version of some well-played jigs and reels, which picked up speed with each tune and repetition, to the delight of the audience.
After a short break, including complimentary oat cakes and jams made by orchestra members, Cassie and Maggie MacDonald took to the stage. It didn't take long for these two to win the audience over with their charm, wry humour, accomplished playing and beautiful vocal harmonies. Oh, and did I mention that they can step dance? By the time they’d finished their first tune, we knew that we were in for a treat. Maggie played guitar and sang in Gaelic and English, while Cassie played fiddle and then began to step dance. Maggie’s voice is strong, low and clear, with some husky undertones, and her guitar and piano playing is rhythmic and driving. Cassie’s fiddle playing is both precise and grotty, and her vocal harmonies, golden.
They sang at least three songs in Gaelic on Sunday, one of which was a milling song, Buran A Choru, which was sung by groups of women in days of old. The overall effect of the sounds and rhythms coming from their instruments and voices, when they sang in Gaelic, resonated deep in me, and was strangely akin to, and echoed the way I feel when listening to Indigenous throat singing.
These MacDonald siblings complement each other, and together create a sound a little edgier than some of the straight up pure Celtic music some of us are used to hearing. While rooted in their Celtic background, having grown up just beside Cape Breton in Antigonish N.S., the influence of Appalachian and Bluegrass music is creeping into their sound. In their latest, a Juno nominated album, ‘The Willow Collection’, they have chosen songs with the Willow as a common thread that runs through all of it. Most are traditional, some are original, and many they played for us in Maberly on Sunday. ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, ‘The Sally Garden Set’, ‘Seileach’ and the ‘Hangman’ to name a few.
When they finished playing, the house jumped to its feet to give them a standing ovation, and the MacDonald sisters did not disappoint. They returned to give two encores. For the last one, they invited members of the fiddle orchestra back up on stage to join them in Brenda Stubbert’s Reel by Cape Breton’s late, great composer and fiddler, Jerry Holland. Cassie and Maggie are moving to Toronto this year from Halifax, to further their career. It will be exciting to see what new influences will creep into their music and how their sound will evolve.
Two nights before, the skies were clear and the harvest moon was waxing at the ABC Hall in Bolingbroke. However a couple of hours earlier a tornado had blown through the area and although the hall was un-damaged, it had no power, except for the emergency lights at the exits. Somehow, the audience braved the elements for a decidedly acoustic show by PEI singer-songwriter Maegan Blanchard and her opening act, Grace Lachance. It is a good thing that both performers know their material well and the acoustics in the hall are good, because they both performed not only unplugged but on a darkened stage as well. We missed Grace Lachance unfortunately because what is normally a 20 minute drive took over an hour because of trees down on the roads, but it was worth the effort to get out to see Maegan Blanchard.
Maegan Blanchard sings some very personal songs, including, on this night at least, several that are about overcome personal darkness to strive for the light So not being able to see her on stage except in silhouette was oddly fitting. Among my favourite of her songs was Broken Pieces, which is from her latest release, which was produced by another well-loved performer around here, Jim Bryson.
Other stand out shows in this year’s series included a rollicking evening at the McDonalds Corners Ag Hall with Colter Wall and Perth’s Henry Norwood. Apparently, they “blew the roof off the hall”, figuratively speaking of course.
There are still tickets left for the Slocan Ramblers Show at the Golden Links Hall in Harrowsmith this coming Saturday Night (September 29), although the Sunday afternoon Kelly Prescott show at the Snow Road Hall is sold out. For tickets go to festivalofsmallhalls.ca