It was a concert that nearly did not happen. It has been three years since the Barra MacNeils performed with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, but the weather nearly scuppered their appearance this weekend.
Canada's favourite Celtic music group hail from Sydney, on Cape Breton island. Their flight to Toronto was cancelled due to fog. “We just had a provincial election there a couple of days ago, so we're still in the fog!”, they told the audience.
Since the show must go on, they had to make the 4-hr land journey to Halifax. That fun little jaunt began at 2am on Friday, but they made it to Toronto and then Kitchener, appearing refreshed and unfazed by the ordeal. “I was able to attend my daughter's school band concert Thursday night because of the delay,” Lucy told the audience, “so something good came of it.”
That resilient approach to life is what comes across in their musical performance, which was greeted by a near capacity audience at Kitchener's Centre in the Square on June 2, 2017. Their dual name comes from the fact the clan MacNeil originated on the Scottish island of Barra. They were all born on Cape Breton island (part of Canada's Nova Scotia province), which in ancient geological time was actually part of the land mass of Scotland.
The members comprising the group now are all siblings:Stewart, Kyle, Lucy, Boyd and Sheumas (on piano). They were joined on stage by Jamie Gatti on bass.
Their first album was released 31 years ago, in 1986. Boyd said they are preparing to release a new album, which includes a song he recently wrote in honour of his wife. “She took my name when we married. Just what Nova Scotia needs- another MacNeil,” he quipped. The instrumental composition was greatly enhanced by the backing of the KWS under the direction of Daniel Batholomew-Poyser. Transitioning as it does from a sweeping waltz melody to a Celtic jig and even a flamenco-inspired section (and then back again), Mademoiselle Gallant's Waltz is a superb creation that will surely become a staple in their future performances.
Lucy shone in a sensitive rendition of Caledonia, which has been included on two of their albums, and her vocals while playing the harp in the Robbie Burns classic My Heart's in the Highlands was another high point of the evening. Their arrangement was mesmerizing and perfectly evoked the emotional content of the lyrics from more than two centuries ago.
Stewart also performed an original composition, The Underachiever, sung a cappella to great effect. The sole Gaelic-language song of the evening was the entrancing My Brown Haired Girl (Mo Ribhinn Donn in Gaelic), featuring a very clear and resonant delivery by Lucy.
Stewart's delivery of One Wild Rose (with lyrics by his uncle Hector Mackenzie) includes the phrase “an unsurpassing gladness.” Those three words best express the tenor of the entire concert, which was truly a delight enjoyed by an audience that included everyone from pre-teens to those advanced in years.