Noteworthy collaboration finds new high

Celtic Colours gives MacIsaac, Lamond platform for shared ideas

Wendy MacIsaac and Mary Jane Lamond have performed together for years, but when they shared the stage last year on the opening night of 2011’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Port Hawkesbury, they decided to try something new.

It was a safe place to experiment, after all they were among friends. Fiddler MacIsaac is from just up the Ceilidh Trail in Creignish, also the home town for her well-known musician cousin Ashley, and Lamond’s Gaelic lilt is frequently heard in the area, with her home base in Glendale only a half-hour away.

The results were refreshing, with Lamond adding accordion to her onstage accomplishments and MacIsaac playing mandolin as well as fiddle and piano. Guitarist Seph Peters delivered an urgent, and at times jazzed-up, undertone with his chords while percussionist-keyboardist Cathy Porter provided that welcome joie de vivre that makes her such a valued addition to any lineup.

This summer at the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival, the combo had gelled even further, honing the marriage of traditional and contemporary folk that graces MacIsaac and Lamond’s first collaborative CD Seinn. (The CD gets an official launch this week at Celtic Colours, a year after they debuted their new twist on things.)

“It’s so encouraging, for a brand new project,” says Lamond, on the phone from Scotland just prior to heading home to play the event that encompasses her home island.

“I mean, it’s an old project, in a way, but it’s new. It’s a completely new approach for us to work together in this way. It’s been really exciting so far.”

Dividing their time on disc and stage between uptempo fiddle tunes and Gaelic ballads, the duo’s new venture evolved out of Lamond’s suggestion that MacIsaac’s playing come further to the fore when she accompanied the singer at concerts and festivals around the world.

Following the dissolution of her Cape Breton supergroup Beolach, MacIsaac also had a little extra time to work with, that is, as much as a mother of two young boys can muster, so it was a relatively easy shift from accompanist to collaborator.

“I didn’t want to be talking too much on stage during Mary Jane’s shows because she always has a story to tell to go with each of her songs, but now we get to banter a little more and it’s way more fun,” says MacIsaac from her home in Halifax, which she shares with husband and sound technician Steve Moore and their boys Angus and Calum.

The pair performs on Friday night as part of Island Women at Glace Bay’s historic Savoy Theatre. They share the stage with Cape Breton performer Rita MacNeil, Canadian Folk Music Award-winner Madison Violet and Cheticamp singer-guitarist Sylvia LeLievre.

Acclaimed Newfoundland folk trio the Once is also on board, along with a festival favourite, Irish singer and flautist Nuala Kennedy. Scottish performers at the show include Barra Gaelic singer Cathy-Ann MacPhee and singer-actress Kathleen MacInnes from South Uist.

On Saturday, Lamond and MacIsaac join Celtic Colours headliners the Chieftains and Battlefield Band, with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lapp and the Diaga Irish Dancers, for 50 Years of Charm, the festival finale at Sydney’s Centre 200.

They’ll also be joined by frequent Lamond accompanist Porter and Margaree native Peters, who became part of the equation shortly after he played a Sunday matinee with MacIsaac at Dartmouth’s Celtic Corner.

“I love playing with him, he’s ‘Mr. Solid.’ He’s right there in terms of rhythm and everything,” says the fiddler.

“But he’s also just a friggin’ great guy, I just love him. We’ve been trying to figure out if we’re related. His mom was from Antigonish so we were trying to see if there was a connection to people at home in Judique.

“There wasn’t, but there’s still a connection, we’re very alike. Even our sense of humour is very similar. We get a kick out of the exact same things so it’s fun to have him on the road.”

Besides Porter and Peters, Seinn also features contributions from fellow Cape Bretoners Ashley MacIsaac, playing piano on a tune named for his cousin’s son Angus, Beolach guitarist Patrick Gillis, pianist Kim Dunn and bassist Ed Woodsworth.

Overseas contributers to the CD include harpist Corrina Hewat, guitarist Tim Edey, and vocals from MacPhee and Irish group T With the Maggies.

The pair was very careful to choose and record material they could reproduce in concert, with Lamond able to add the extra texture of accordion while Porter was busy with a drum or shakers.

Together, they’d go through their latest discoveries, looking for melodic and rhythmic variety among the tunes they liked best, from gentle lullabies to the loping drive of work songs. They did the same with MacIsaac compositions like Keeping Up With Calum or Boise Monsters, which is blended with Ryan J. MacNeil’s Schooner Lane.

“With Wendy, we’d just get together and I’d sing a song and see how she liked it, and she might pick up an instrument and start playing along,” says Lamond.

“Not everything we worked on made it to the CD, but we chose the things that seemed to fit, and she had the fiddle tunes that she wanted to include. Eventually we reached a critical mass of material where we could see what we had and what we wanted to have in the mix.”

So far that mix is a welcome new balance between MacIsaac’s robust traditional playing and the unlikely sweet and sombre blend of Lamond’s tales of highland heartache.

But it’s also the result of the road-tested chemistry between four musicians whose personalities mesh just as well in the van as they do in the spotlight.

“We don’t need any drama,” chuckles Lamond over the solid friendship between them.

“Unless I’m the one providing it, of course. Actually, they’d probably just leave me on the side of the road.”

by Stephen Cooke, The Chronicle Herald