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
For as long as I can remember, the Liberals have asked NDP voters for their help in defeating the Tories, and many of us have complied, ensuring that Liberal governments be formed. Now is the time for Liberals, in Ontario, to return the favour, to step up and lend their vote to the NDP. I ask that Green voters and any disconcerted Conservatives, please strongly consider doing the same. This opportunity to work together to block a Ford government should not be missed.
Twenty eight years ago, when we moved to the area, if anyone had told me that I’d be sitting in the old Catholic Church in Sharbot Lake, eating croissants and sipping cappuccino while enjoying a concert of Baroque, Irish, Bulgarian and Argentinian music played on violin and guitar, I would not have believed them. And yet that is exactly what happened last Tuesday evening, March 20, when violinist, Edwin Huizinga and guitarist, William Coulter played to an appreciative audience at the Cardinal Cafe in Sharbot Lake. The house had been sold out for some time as many of us had had the opportunity of hearing Edwin Huizinga two years ago when he played a concert of Baroque music, in the same venue, with harpsichordist, Phillip Fournier.
There was an excitement in the air as Huizinga and Coulter began to play their arrangement of the Prelude from Cello Suite #1 by J.S. Bach. This piece really seems to travel. It made me feel like I was on a train, imagining all of the panoramic views I was passing. The guitar and violin sounded so right together. The sound was rich and warm and masterful, with just the right balance of each. The next set was a Celtic one inspired by Irish composer, Bill Whelan’s Riverdance. They played Riverdance Jig, Excerpt from Corona, a beautiful and haunting slow air which seemed to defy time and space, followed by Chronus and Reel around the Sun.
The third piece was called the Liquid Gold Suite. This set evolved from Coulter’s guitar arrangement of Schumann’s piano accompaniment to Bach’s Partita #2 for solo violin. Huizinga and Coulter, then paired this Baroque dance music with traditional and newer Irish music. In all, there were 8 parts to this suite, each Bach part being followed by an Irish tune. These pieces fit together beautifully. Each one giving context to the next and receiving it from the previous one seamlessly.
Perhaps the most enticing music played by the duo were the three Bulgarian tunes, two Kopanistas (dances), and Polognala e Todora. These were so different from anything that this rural Ontario ear is used to hearing. Very much Middle Eastern in sound, Huizinga and Coulter brought these pieces to life. The two lively Kopanistas (dances) book-ended a much quieter, yet quite moving slower piece, Pologna e Todora, where the guitar began the tune, then the violin took precedence. So ephemeral, it sounded almost like a plaintive whistle or human voice as the guitar kept the beat all along and then brought the tune to its quiet conclusion.
There was an original solo guitar instrumental, written by Coulter for his brother as a wedding gift, inspired by the natural beauty of the sea and the Irish landscape where the wedding took place. This was followed by Summer from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. Huizinga set up the three movements for the audience, invoking the imagery of a very hot summer day in Italy. In the first movement, we were to imagine that all of the birds were coming out, and to listen especially for the cuckoos. In the second, we were to think of the guitar personifying the many annoying bugs at night, while the violin would represent the sleeping camper. Finally in the third movement, we were to imagine all of the wonder of summer storms. Many in the audience had eyes closed as they listened and were transported by these pieces.
Despite all of the beauty in each of the earlier pieces, this duo saved some of it for their encore. After a standing ovation from the house, the concert ended with Oblivion, tango music from bandoneon master and composer, Astor Piazzolla. I have never heard the high notes on the E string of a violin sound so sweet, as Edwin Huizinga made them sound on this tango. It was as much lullabye as tango and it took us into the sublime.
A fitting ending to this concert.
The sun poured in through the windows of the schoolhouse on March 11 for the first in a series of a Sunday afternoon spring concert series taking place at MERA in McDonalds Corners.
The hall was full as Clan Hannigan took to the stage to play mostly Irish tunes and other British Isles tunes. The family group, who live in Baltimore, near Cobourg, consists of husband and wife duo Saskia Tompkins and Steafan Hannigan, joined by all three of their children.
The two youngest, sisters Eile 17, and Ayisha 14, began many of the tunes, with controlled vocals and lovely harmonies. Whether they were singing a tune from Northern Ireland, ‘Loving Hannah,’ or ‘The Water is Wide’ these two had the audience in their grasp. Their rendition of Newfoundland’s late bard Ron Hynes’, ‘Sonny’s Dream’, was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. The rest of the family came in, one by one, adding more texture and counterpoint to the lovely voices as each joined in with their instruments.
The rest of the tunes were played by mother, father and eldest son. They played many jigs and reels airs and polkas, and even one called Blackbird that Steafan Hannigan joked was an ‘unreel’. Saskia Tomkins played viola mostly, but also treated the audience to the sound of the nickelharpa, a twelfth century stringed instrument from Sweden, which she played on a few of the tunes. Steafan played flute, uilleann pipes and guitars, there were three that I counted, and a banjo. Oisin (pronounced U-sheen) played bodhran mostly, keeping the beat with complex rhythmns. He also picked up the pipes, that he’d fashioned himself, using an air mattress pump in a pinch, to play a haunting and beautiful original tune, showing at once, his resourcefulness as well as his talent.
The mood in the room was lightened by Steafan’s many comedic stories and quips throughout the afternoon, and by the overall comfort of the family interacting with us, and with one another. There was much laughter and even some, dare I say, shenanigans. There was even a sing-a-long sea shanty from the 1500’s, popular in Newfoundland, ‘Hanging Johnny’ led by eldest child, Oisin, 19. All in all, it was a wonderful and lighthearted afternoon, with a touch of the sublime. A good time was had by all, as could be seen by the many smiles around the room.
Country Music by Joey Wright
review by Martina Field
It was a relatively warm early November evening (Nov. 12) when the Cardinal Cafe started to fill with people in anticipation of Elphin resident Joey Wright’s CD release concert. The ambiance was set by the lovely candle-lit room, which made the atmosphere of the renovated church/cafe even more warm and relaxed.
Joey’s new album is called Country Music and on that night, except for a couple of tunes from his earlier albums, and two of Jenny Whiteley’s, he played mostly from it. Wright’s last solo album ‘Hatch’ was a break with tradition from his first two, which were mostly fast paced blue/new grass instrumental records. In Country Music, this departure continues. In fact, the only instrumental tracks on this album are two quite beautiful Interludes, that only last a few seconds. The rest have lyrics, written by Joey with the exception of a wonderfully slowed down version of Bob Wills’ Faded Love.
The title track of the album, Country Music, has the familiarity of a rich old country song from an era gone by, so much so, that at first I mistook it for a cover version of an older country song. In fact, it was jointly penned by Wright and Jenny Whiteley, Joey’s partner in love and in life. Jenny joined him on stage, as did Dean Stone, Julian Brown and Mike Eckert.
There are a couple of pop sounding tunes on the album, including Nostalgia, and Black Hole. The first song on the record, Black Hole, like many of Joey’s songs, is open to interpretation. For me, within the chorus, there lies a metaphor for life, ‘I’m losing control, I can’t escape the gravity of this black hole’. I see the black hole as being the inevitability of our mortality. It is a given, it comes with being born; death is inescapable. I love that the music is so upbeat in this song despite the grave message. I also love that this is what I get from the song, where someone else may get another meaning, perhaps neither of us the one that was intended by Wright.
The second song on the album Eyes Looking Out, was the first Joey played at the concert, and he relayed how it was inspired by his grandfather who was a gunner in WWII. This song hearkens back to the dreamy tone of Hatch. The back up vocals on this song and many of the others are provided by Amy Millan and Jenny Whiteley. They are beautiful and ephemeral and sound sometimes like a whisper or an echo, and definitely add much in the way of texture to the music. They work perfectly with Joey’s rich, warm voice.
The synthesizers add texture as well, as do the horns, lap-steel, guitar and drums. Mountain Grove’s Jonas Bonetta co-produced and played synthesizer on this album, to good effect. The songs have a cohesion to one another and this glue is in good part due to the consistency of the vocals, instrumentation, (including the shimmering light touch of Wright’s mandolin and guitar), spare drumming and slow tempo. It is not at all over-produced; it is just right.
It is not only the sound and feel of this album which stand out, but also the tempo. Most of the tunes have a slowed pace or beat. They have rhythm alright, just everything seems slowed down. The over-all effect that this has on the listener, is that it seems to help calm the heart rate and remind one to breathe. This notion is punctuated by the second to last song on the record called, Time Stands Still, in which it almost seems that Wright slows time to a halt … at least for a second.
The song Meteor also stands out, not only for it’s fine rhythms, but because of the way it tells a story of a love or friendship losing its lustre, ‘making a stone out of a gem’, while looking through a rear view mirror of sorts ... ‘the sky is getting clearer, I’m looking back in time and leaving a trail behind’.
Our Love Moved Out to the Country is a love song that also plays like a story book. It’s simple and honest, saying that ‘love is the essence of the soul/pure as the tears of a child/you make me want grow old/you’re still going to drive me wild’. And, ‘when we talk I feel better/this mean old world turns into joy/my thoughts turn into love letters/I feel like a teenage boy’. We all might like to hear these emotions from our loved one.
Looking back in time, and grappling with memories figure thematically in many of these songs. In Nostalgia the chorus begins ‘I’m going down/where memories can always be found’. And, in Jodi, the lyric, ‘How can I be set free from memories/I’m stuck in memories’ ends the song. This, the last track of the album, has become one of my favourites. On Jodi, the piano and vocal hold such emotion. It draws you in to its world, and when it ends, I am, like the crowd on that evening at the end of the concert, left longing for more.
Joey Wright’s words paint pictures and tell stories. His music is original, and calms the soul. His own particular style is emerging, and I can’t wait to hear what he does next.