This month’s Cape Breton dance at the Canadian-American Club kicked off with a march, strathspeys, and reels set with Troy on fiddle and Kimberley on keyboards; I have a one word description for this set in my notes, the French word magistral (masterly, with exceptional skill and quality): it just blew me away, reminding me of another memorable night a few years back at West Mabou when Troy (that night accompanied by Allan Dewar) elicited exactly the same reaction from me (I still vividly remember a group of young fiddlers from British Columbia leaving after the dance who were rightly oohing and aahing at that incredible performance as I followed them out the door and I could only silently agree).
A jig set followed, with great lilt and drive on both instruments, inviting dancers to the floor for a square set, but there were no takers, likely mesmerized by the gorgeous playing. They then gave us a slow air, followed by strathspeys and reels, that did entice some step-dancers to take the floor.
The call then went out for a Boston set that got eight couples on the floor, with Bill Luoma doing the calling. When the set ended, they gave us a fine waltz played with beautiful and interesting embellishments on both instruments. A strathspeys and reels set got six step-dancers out on the floor to give us their steps.
With Janine Randall taking over the keyboards from Kimberley, a Mabou set was then danced, and vigorously, with stepping occurring all through the figures, in the best Cape Breton style. Some strathspeys and reels followed, during which Kimberley took the floor to step dance; her fractured foot has healed and is now happily a thing of the past!
With Kimberley on fiddle and Troy on keyboards, Bill Luoma called the second Boston set of the evening. A waltz followed and then a set of strathspeys and reels, during which Jennifer Schoonover encouraged two young dancers to show us their steps. Another vigorous Mabou set followed, with Kimberley and Troy switching places for the third figure; Kimberley is still experiencing considerable pain in her fingering hand when playing the fiddle, a condition she tells me is getting medical attention.
Both musicians then took a break and the attendees enjoyed tea and sweets from the kitchen while Rachel Reeds on fiddle and Janine Randall on keyboards gave us three sets of Cape Breton tunes. After the 50/50 draw and remarks by Bill Luoma and Peggy Morrison, Troy and Kimberly returned on dual fiddles, with Janine remaining on the keyboards, for another fine waltz. They then played another jig set, inviting dancers for a third Mabou set, but none came forward. So they next played a set of polkas, including several of the Antigonish polkas for which Troy’s grandfather was beloved, and got several couples onto the floor to dance to them. A slow strathspey followed by strathspeys and reels brought two of the step dancers back to the floor. After a standing ovation for the musicians, Troy on fiddle and Kimberley on keyboards gave us a great clog set as an encore.
What a musical feast this evening was! The playing throughout was superb, on keyboards just as much as on fiddle. And there were a number of tunes that I don’t hear often enough at dances; I couldn’t have asked for anything more. This dance was very well-attended with the hall full for much of the evening; everyone with whom I spoke was as enchanted by the music as I was.
Sunday, instead of returning home as I normally would early in the morning, after a much later mid-morning start, I headed west through the northern part of Massachusetts along the Mohawk Trail, a very scenic route through the hills that I left in Greenfield after a photo shoot at the French King Bridge over the Connecticut River where the Mohawk Trail crosses a gorge high above the river. I then drove north to Brattleboro (Vermont), checked in to the motel, and continued on to Keene (New Hampshire) for additional sightseeing and an early dinner, luckily avoiding the Mothers’ Day crowds. I then followed the Franklin Pierce Highway north along the scenic Otter Brook and drove around the area south of Nelson, admiring the picturesque ponds nestled in the mountains, arriving back at the Town Hall for the evening’s concert in plenty of time.
I was last in Nelson 2005 March 26 for a concert given by Jerry Holland, who was accompanied that evening by Dedo Norris on the grand piano. I have only two photos from that concert and both, alas, are blurry, but the grand piano that Dedo played that night is the same as the one still there, a Poole from Boston. In response to the question I asked him, Lloyd Carr tells me that it is highly unusual for a New Hampshire town hall to have a grand piano (he could think only of one other, Peterborough (which is used for summer theatre, often musicals) and he would know as he plays piano for dances throughout New England) and that Nelson does because music is so central to the community, with events occurring every week and often more frequently. Indeed, the hall was full, as everyone was anticipating the fine playing that was in store for us.
This evening was a concert, not a dance, and the music was simply stunning, with no background distractions whatsoever. The concert opened with Kimberley and Troy on dual fiddles with no piano accompaniment; they gave us a set of jigs and reels. Kimberley then began alone a slow strathspey and Troy joined in later, still on fiddle, continuing with reels. The playing was as if there was one fiddle, not two, and it sounded fast at the end! Incredible playing! Next, with Kimberley on lead fiddle and Troy on backing fiddle, they gave us a beautiful tune I’d heard before, but couldn’t make up my mind whether it was an air or a waltz. Troy then moved to the grand piano as Kimberley started a strathspey and continued with reels; Kimberley’s fiddle was blazingly perfect and Troy’s piano laid down an accompaniment that matched; what a rollocking set this was—close to ragtime! Troy then gave us one of his fine piano solos, with a precision, speed, drive, and grace that beggars description—just sheer joy to hear; Kimberley was dancing in place as she sat on the bench behind Troy. Troy then took up the fiddle and Kimberley took to the floor to give us a fine (and long) step dance. Kimberley then moved to the piano as Troy on fiddle led off a blast of tunes with Hector MacKenzie’s march (or 4/4 air), Memories of Mary Anne MacKenzie, and followed it with strathspeys; Kimberley’s superb accompaniment on the piano was a perfect match for Troy’s energetic playing.
It was now time for a break and sweets and tea and coffee were available in the back of the hall. After partaking of these refreshments, I took the opportunity to get some close-up photos of the grand piano and chatted with people I know from the Canadian-American Club and from Cape Breton.
Troy and Kimberley began the second half, as they had the first, on dual fiddles, this time playing pipe tunes on the fiddle. Troy averred he had been practicing on the bagpipes—it seems as if there’s nothing this guy doesn’t play!–but was a long ways from being comfortable enough to play them in public. Again, the playing was so unified, it was hard to believe there were two fiddles. Next, they played Sheehan’s Reel one time through; then, they swapped their fiddles, and played it through a second time, though it sounded not at all like Sheehan’s Reel! This is because Kimberley is a left-handed fiddler and Troy is a right-handed fiddler and their fiddles are strung accordingly; so, when playing the reel as they normally would play it, it comes out … backwards is the first word I can think of, but maybe inverted would be more appropriate. In any case, an amazing demonstration of the difference (and of their joint abilities to ignore that difference!). Kimberley moved back to the grand piano and they then gave us some jigs; again, Kimberley’s accompaniment was fantastic. A fine march started off the next set, played with lift and lilt on both instruments, and was followed by equally fine strathspeys and reels, played with fire and verve—pure joy to listen to! Next, Troy joined Kimberley on the piano and we had a set of jigs four-hands, very nicely done; midway through, Troy got up, leaving Kimberley to play solo for a bit, and then sat down at the opposite end of the bench and they finished the set again with four hands. Absolute mastery and an amazing performance! Kimberley went back to the fiddle and started off, solo, a slow air, after which Troy joined in with a gorgeous piano accompaniment. The finale had the two back on dual fiddles, giving us the traditional strathspey The Lass of Corrie’s Mill, Tullochgorm, Preston Pans, and a fourth tune whose name I didn’t catch. This was a simply astounding performance: if there is any tune where one would rightly expect muddiness from dual fiddles, Tullochgorm is definitely it, yet they played it with one voice, in spite of all of its complex phrasing and bowing and speed. Needless to say, this spectacular conclusion to a wonderful concert was greeted with a standing ovation. The encore was a square set: after efficiently clearing the hall of its seating (in less than four minutes!), those who wished to dance (and they were many) enjoyed a Mabou set; Richard Backes (pronounced [ˈbækəs]), a member of the Monadnock Folklore Society’s board, was the only player present who accepted the musicians’ invitation to join them in playing for the set.
What a privilege it was to be present at this concert. It was certainly one for the ages. I still can’t get over how unified their sound was on dual fiddles; it was simply an extraördinary performance.
My sincerest thanks go to those at the Canadian-American Club who organized the dance on Saturday and to those of the Monadnock Folklore Society who mounted the concert at the Nelson Town Hall on Sunday: they enabled me to hear two superb exponents of the Cape Breton musical tradition, whose music echoed in my ears as I returned home early Monday morning and echoes still.