As I do each year, I drove to my sister’s in the Thousand Islands for the long Memorial Day week-end. Two musical events were scheduled for the week-end across the St Lawrence River in the Ottawa area and I managed to take both of them in.
The first was a Cape Breton ceilidh and square dance organized by the Ottawa Cape Breton Session at the St Brigid’s Centre for the Arts in downtown Ottawa. This was the first time they had used this venue, which is on the bottom floor of a deconsecrated church. It proved to be a nearly ideal site, with excellent acoustics and plenty of room for the more than 100 attendees to dance and sit and enjoy the music.
And what music it was, with three of Cape Breton’s top performers: Andrea Beaton and Troy MacGillivray on dual fiddles, with Allan Dewar providing his lively and beautiful keyboard accompaniments. This seems to be the season for dual fiddles and the playing was both sensational and seamless.
The evening began with Graham Crate providing slow-motion walk-throughs of the three figures of a Mabou set, with music played at less than full speed to allow the dancers to practice the figures as they went. After the instruction had ended, the musicians first replayed the set at normal speed. They then broke into a fabulous set of strathspeys and reels just for the sheer joy of the playing. Next, they played for the first “real” square set of the evening, which saw a large group of dancers take to the floor; I’m not sure why the instruction was necessary, as the dancers were plentiful, eager, and enthusiastic, stepping through the figures with glee. And the music was simply incredible, matching the dancers’ energy with fire and verve and drive in the playing.
Giving the Cape Breton musicians a break, Cleary Morris took the stage and gave us some songs, accompanying himself on banjo and with Alana Morris on keyboards and Ernie Fraser on guitar.
The Cape Bretoners returned to the stage and the second Mabou set was danced; both dancers and musicians were as full of energy as for the first set. This was followed by a long set of strathspeys and reels during which a number of dancers shared their steps with us. The first of the dancers was Amy Levesconte from Mabou, in town for the memorial to the noted Glengarry musician, Malcolm Dewar, who had just passed away a couple of days earlier. Beth MacGillivray followed and, like Amy, gave us a fine set of steps in the traditional close-to-the-floor style. Next, Janine Lesperanc, whose style was again close to the floor, danced and was followed by Cindy Thompson-Butineau (an Ottawa Valley fiddler and step-dancer), who gave us some Ottawa Valley steps. A group of four dancers formed of Dawn Dewar, Sarah Robinson, Terri-Lynn Mahusky, and Samantha Harvey (the first three are noted Ottawa Valley dancers and Samantha’s background is Irish dancing) danced as an ensemble. The set concluded with a different group of four who did some highland dancing to the music.²
Ernie Fraser on guitar joined the other three for the third Mabou set of the evening, again danced with great enthusiasm, with feedback from the dancers synergistically pushing the musicians to ever greater heights; when the dancers clapped at the end of the third figure, the musicians simply ignored them and kept on going with more tunes, ending with Adam Sutherland’s high-energy The Road to Errogie.
It was clearly time for another break, though Ernie Fraser’s guitar picking, backed by Alana Morris on keyboards, was anything but sedate! What a fine set of traditional tunes he played at break-neck speed! The jam session followed, with six fiddlers, a guitarist, and Alana on keyboards, and then seven fiddlers with Alana. This session was dedicated to the memory of Malcolm Dewar and a fitting tribute it was indeed. Door prizes, a tradition at the Ottawa Cape Breton Session dances, were then distributed by a random draw using the entrance ticket stubs. Brent MacDonald thanked Beth MacGillivray for all her efforts in organizing the dance and the workshops which ran earlier in the day.
With refreshed musicians and dancers, the fourth Mabou set was danced to close off the evening; again, after the third figure had ended, the musicians just kept on playing, one tune after another. I’m really out of adjectives to describe the high energy level of the music; perhaps it was the dual fiddles or perhaps it was just the way the musicians were interacting with each other, but they were clearly having tremendous fun playing together and just did not want to stop. Nor did those in attendance want them to, adding hoots and hollers to encourage them to continue. It was simply an evening not to be missed! Another one for the ages!
Because it was the Ottawa Race week-end (marathon and associated shorter foot races), I had been unable to find affordable accommodations in Ottawa and therefore stayed west of the city about forty minutes away in Arnprior. The next morning, which, alas, was mostly overcast with occasional sunny breaks, I set out to explore the north side of the Ottawa River, taking an interesting car ferry across the Ottawa River to Quyon and then driving west on the 148 until its end just south of Pembroke. It is beautiful countryside on both sides of the river and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area, which I do not know well and hadn’t been in for a considerable number of years (1999, I think was the last time I was in that area, and then I drove through it rather than exploring it).
After a dinner in late afternoon back in Arnprior, I drove the few miles south to the site of Sunday’s concert, Almonte (the name is pronounced with two syllables, not three, in spite of probably having been named for Juan N. Almonte, a famous Mexican general and diplomat); built on the many water falls of the Mississippi River, “by 1870 [Almonte] was one of Ontario’s leading woollen cloth manufacturing centres” in the words of a historical marker across from the Old Town Hall, the concert venue.
The concert was put together by Troy MacGillivray and, as he told me after the concert, gathered together a number of players he has met while touring over the years and with whom he greatly enjoys playing. Jim Mountain, a tireless volunteer on the board of the Almonte Old Town Hall and promoter of Almonte (he worked on the beautiful Riverwalk which runs along the Mississippi River), opened the show by introducing Troy. With Troy on fiddle, Allan Dewar on keyboards, and Jake Charron on guitar, we first heard a slower tune which was followed with strathspeys and reels, a rousing beginning in pure Cape Breton style. With barely a pause to allow the applause to die away, they then launched into a set of jigs, the second of which was especially fine and the last one a tune I didn’t know; this set was played in a rollicking, singing way with great lilt and lift—an amazingly beautiful set. Next they gave us a couple of tunes (either clogs or hornpipes, I’m not exactly sure which), followed by reels; the playing again was absolutely fantastic!
Next, Troy asked Sarah Robinson to the stage to step-dance and yielded the fiddle to Louis Schryer; Troy took over the piano from Allan and Jake continued on guitar. Sarah, with taps, gave us a fine dance to Louis’ fiery fiddle; it was percussive and not particularly close to the floor—I am told it was a very precise demonstration of the Ottawa Valley step-dancing style—but amazing to watch. This was my first exposure to either Sarah or Louis and I came away from it very impressed with both.
When Sarah had finished her dance and left the stage, the three others continued with a tour-de-force set, some tunes of which I did not recognize, that gave me more exposure to Louis’ very fluid fiddle; this was definitely not Cape Breton fiddle music, but it was also not a lot of other kinds of fiddle music that I associate with Ontario (such as the styles of Graham Townsend and April Verch, to name two) and it certainly wasn’t classical violin either, though it was silky smooth. When Louis plays, his whole body is in constant motion, leaning left and right, sometimes almost to the point of falling over, but somehow this adds to the drive in his playing. It was a fantastic performance, leaving me very impressed. Next, he gave us a minor key version of Londonderry Air, followed by a blast of reels; again, a compelling set that was played (by all!) superbly well.
Then, it was back to Cape Breton music again, where I felt on much firmer musical ground, as a radiant and beaming Andrea Beaton came out on stage with Allan returning on keyboards and Jake continuing on guitar. She gave us a magnificent and long set of what she called “Mabou tunes”, starting with her grandfather’s Memories of Paddy LeBlanc march and continuing with strathspeys and reels, some also Donald Angus’s. It just doesn’t get any better than this! Troy then joined her on fiddle and the four musicians continued with a jig set on dual fiddles that switched to reels. The perfection of the playing was a repeat of last night’s fantastic music—I wouldn’t have missed this performance for anything!
Next, Troy invited Samantha Harvey to the stage; Jake took over the keyboards and Samantha on accordion gave us a pretty French waltz and then some fine French reels. Allan reclaimed the keyboards and Jake his guitar, as Louis and Troy on dual fiddles accompanied Samantha on accordion for the set of very beautifully rendered tunes that closed out the first half of the show.
After a break for refreshments during which the audience got to stretch their legs and discuss the magnificent music to which they had just been treated, the concert resumed with Jake playing banjo, Troy on fiddle, and Allan on keyboards, giving us a dandy set of tunes that ended with some great reels and showed off Jake’s banjo prowess to fine advantage.
Troy next asked Terri-Lynn Mahusky to come out on fiddle and Jake took over the keyboards; she played Neil Gow’s Lamentation for James Moray of Abercarney and followed it up by Bobby MacLeod’s Jean’s Reel. Known as a ‘Canadian Old-Tyme’ fiddler who also enjoys and plays Irish, Cape Breton, and Québécois tunes, she gave us a set demonstrating her superb and beautiful playing, quite unlike that of anyone else who had previously been on stage. With Jake continuing on keyboards, Troy then joined Terri-Lynn on dual fiddles for a set of four tunes, starting with Willie Coleman’s Jig and the rest of whose names I didn’t get written down. Another beautifully played set!
Continuing, Troy took over the keyboards and gave us a piano solo, beginning with a lovely slow air; Jake joined in on guitar later as Troy moved into the reels, played at blazing speed and with absolute technical mastery, yet conveying the emotional heart of the music.
Troy then invited Matt Pepin to the stage, to accompany Samantha Harvey step-dancing; Jake joined in on guitar and the keyboards were left silent. Again, this dance was percussive and not close to the floor, but fast and furious and exciting to watch. After Samantha left the stage, Matt and Jake gave us a set of jigs that reminded me of Liz Carroll’s choice of music; they seemed, like much of her playing, to be lost in a loop (i.e., to not reach a musical destination or resolution), but they were played with her technical dexterity and perfection. Troy then joined Jake and Matt on dual fiddles and played Marcel Doucet’s Space Available march and ending with a bunch of reels, including a wild version of Gordon MacLean’s The Mortgage Burn.
Everyone then came out on stage and created a great finale set, including vigorous step dancing by Samantha, Sarah, Andrea, Terri-Lynn, and Troy. Jake on guitar and Allan on keyboards provided a fine accompaniment to the choir of fiddlers arrayed across the stage. A standing ovation greeted the performers, who, after sustained clapping, came back to the stage for a final waltz.
I betray my parochial horizons by admitting to never having even heard of half of the performers before, several of whom have won the Canadian Open Fiddle Championship, some multiple times, and acquired fine reputations as performers. But I certainly hope to hear all of them again in the future; while they don’t play much in the Cape Breton style, they are certainly technically way beyond competent and produce riveting mostly traditional music that quite held my interest. What an amazing concert this was: Troy is to be congratulated on assembling such a fine cast of players and for creating on stage an ambiance similar to a house party that revealed how much these musicians enjoy and feed off each other’s music. It was a wonderful evening I won’t soon forget.
¹ A typo spotted by Marcia Palmater and a dancer misnaming reported by both Terry Eagan and Beth MacGillivray have been corrected in this version.↩
² Thanks to Beth MacGillivray for supplying the names of the dancers and for other help with this review.↩
To view the first photo for this event, click the “First” link in the footer below (or in the navigation bar at the top of this page); to view the subsequent photos, click the “Next” link in that and each subsequent page’s footer or navigation bar. To return to this page, click on any of the topics in the middle section of the navigation bar.
I was generally well-positioned for photos at both events, though microphones got in the way a bit on Sunday. All of the photos were taken without flash, mostly by choice, but also partly out of necessity: the camera spilled out of its case and hit the brick steps lens down as I was loading the car Friday morning—fortunately, it seemed to survive with everything working normally, but when I went to take a flash photo on Saturday night, the flash failed to fire, even though the camera clearly thought it was supposed to. So, my apologies for graininess in some of the photos and the inevitable blur that fast-moving arms and legs cause when taken without flash.