Beth MacGillivray, whom I met in Cape Breton several years ago and have seen there each year since, is a founder of the Ottawa Cape Breton Session. When I saw her this past summer, she mentioned she was organizing a Cape Breton week-end in Ottawa over the Remembrance Day week-end, featuring Dara Smith-MacDonald and Adam Young, who released (with Junior Fraser) a fine CD this spring entitled Connections, a copy of which I picked up on my first trip to Cape Breton this year.
I have known of Dara from the square dances she has played at West Mabou over the years and very much enjoy her solid musicianship, beautiful tone, and fine rhythmic lilt. I first heard Adam at performances of the Lyrics and Laughter shows at the Louisbourg Playhouse; later, he was the piano player on Colin Grant’s Colin Grant CD and toured with him and Jason MacDonald in New England; I also heard him play with Dara at square dances and at a cèilidh this past summer at St Anns Bay United Church where he accompanied David Barron. Adam is a fine player whose distinctive accompaniments provide a solid rhythmic foundation with plenty of beautiful and original embellishments.
It is a ten-hour drive from where I live in New Jersey to Ottawa, but I decided, weather-permitting, I would go for the week-end and spend the Sunday afterward with my sister, who lives in the Thousand Islands area, thereby breaking the drive up a little bit. In spite of what the weatherman said, a nasty squall with sleet and freezing rain just north of Syracuse made the interstate very treacherous (with a few cars going off the road), but it lasted only a few miles and I fortunately made it through OK; the rest of Friday’s trip was uneventful and I arrived in Ottawa with a blaze of blinding sun in my rear view mirror as I drove through busy streets to my downtown accommodations.
After a brief rest and some dinner, I headed off to the evening’s house concert, hosted by Graham and Suzanne Crate a few miles away. After being introduced to my hosts and meeting Dara, Adam, and friends I’d made in Cape Breton, I got the opportunity to chat with them and make some new friends while drinking some very fine mulled cider offered by the hostess.
Dara and Adam then sat down and gave us some very fine sets of tunes. I was seated so close to both players that I was able to watch their fingering and became so mesmerized with what they were doing (especially Adam’s amazing ability to slip in all sorts of subtleties while keeping up a solid rhythm) that I neglected to get out my notebook and write down the names of the tunes that they played. Most of the sets they did were from the CD, but Dara also took requests from the audience and then wove other tunes into them on the fly. She asked Adam to play his sole composition to date, which he wrote some thirteen years ago and has only recently named Lasting Impression; it’s a luscious piece and richly deserves to be recorded. Dara and Adam played for nearly an hour before taking a break; when they returned, there were many more tunes, among them Jerry Holland’s beautiful air, Lonesome Eyes, on which Dara’s playing was superb and which led Adam to produce a marvellous accompaniment that was simply perfect. Mrs Crawford, one of the few tunes I know by name, was another stand-out piece, with gorgeous fiddle and superb piano. Marches, strathspeys, jigs, and reels all came streaming one after another. Dara closed with her CD set Some of my Favourites, nearly ten minutes long that just flew by way too fast. As had the evening!
The next day, Dara and Adam gave workshops. Since I’m not a player, I took the opportunity to instead drive up the 5 and the 105 along the Gatineau River in Québec; even though the day was cloudy, I’m not enough of a city boy to have wanted to spend it in Ottawa, beautiful city on a gorgeous riverine site though it be. I drove north to Grand-Remous (on the Trans-Canadian Highway), where I turned around and returned as I had come; the countryside along the 105 has become considerably more populous and the road is in much better shape since I was last up that way, more than ten years ago. I stopped here and there on the way back, but it wasn’t a day for pictures — at least not until I was on the 5 again heading into Ottawa, when the sun finally came out.
After dinner with friends, I made my way to the Officers’ Mess at the RCMP Headquarters, where square dance instruction was underway when I arrived. Shortly after, my jaw dropped when Cape Breton’s own Burton MacIntyre strode in. Once the instruction was finished, Dara and Adam played for the dance, alternating square sets with waltzes, among them Jerry’s In Memory of Herbie MacLeod. The enthusiastic dancers filled all of the available floor space during the square sets and filled the air with hoots and hollers in the best Cape Breton style. After five (I think) square sets, Dara launched into a set of strathspeys that brought five fine dancers to the floor to demonstrate their steps, not all of which were in the classical Cape Breton style (the Ottawa Valley has its own style). Dara and Adam then took a long break. Ernie Fraser (descended from the Frasers of Meat Cove) on guitar, accompanied by Alanna Morris (from the Glengarry area) on keyboards, gave us some very fine pickin’, playing traditional Cape Breton fiddle tunes on guitar. Then Bonita LeBlanc, accompanied by Alanna, gave us a long set of dandy reels, played with her usual verve and fire. After a brief pause to set up, the players who form the Ottawa Cape Breton Session next gave us several sets of great tunes, with very fine playing, joined by Dara part way through. This very talented group of players, which meets regularly, has obviously worked hard to achieve a high level of playing and now has an extensive repertoire of Cape Breton tunes. Once they had finished, Dara and Adam came back for another square set and finished the evening with a good long blast of toe-tappin’ great tunes. It was a very fine dance indeed, which, with Burton dancing up a storm, made me feel as if I were squarely back in Cape Breton! If you're ever in Ottawa, be sure to check out the Ottawa Cape Breton Session web site to see what’s going on!