By Earle Hitchner
In “You Lovers All,” an Irish traditional song dating back to the 19th century, a pair of immigrant lovers from Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, reunite by chance in Quebec and then, by choice, “live quite happily in a town they call Saint John.”
Their decision to remain in Saint John, a New Brunswick seaport on the Bay of Fundy, would have been all the easier in the 21st century had they known about the 14th annual East Coast Music Awards and Conference held there from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3. It was an exhilarating celebration of multi-genre music, Celtic included, from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Labrador, and New Brunswick, the only Canadian province officially bilingual (French and English).
As a U.S. delegate invited by the Canadian Embassy, I was impressed by the breadth of talent on display at the 2002 ECMA. Costing $1.3 million (Canadian) to mount and generating $3.5 million for the Saint John economy, the four-day event showcased established and emerging Atlantic Canadian artists for over 2,000 industry delegates. There were also thousands of music fans who flocked to the city and an estimated one million viewers who watched the national telecast of the Feb. 3 gala awards show held at the Harbour Station arena.
Live music seemed to fill every pub, lounge, theater, hotel, school auditorium, museum, ballroom, atrium, and foyer in Saint John. There was even a 72-hour jam at a billiards hall that featured 83 bands, giving fresh meaning to the phrase “rock around the clock.” Most events were packed, and most attendees moved from one venue to another with the help of a fully enclosed, heated pedestrian walkway system running from the top to the bottom of the city.
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A quadruple threat as composer, arranger, performer, and producer, Gordie Sampson hails from Cape Breton Island, where he has collaborated with Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, the Rankins, the Barra MacNeils, and Mary Jane Lamond. On stage, his grit-edged voice and crisp guitar picking combined with fresh, venturesome songwriting to create succinct narratives rooted in realism.
Equally adept in folk, traditional, rock, and pop realms, Sampson shared songwriter of the year honors with Jimmy Rankin, previously of the Rankin Family, for “Followed Her Around,” a catchy, country-pop hit in Canada that also earned Rankin the award for single of the year.
From Mabou, Cape Breton Island, the Rankins were siblings (sisters Heather, Raylene, and Cookie; brothers Jimmy and the late John Morris) steeped in tradition but with a contemporary flair, especially in Jimmy’s songwriting. After a 10-year run, they disbanded in 1999, and Jimmy took some time off before deciding to embark last year on a solo career and album, “Song Dog.” With his Songdogs band in an ECMA concert broadcast nationally by CBC Radio, Rankin imparted a Springsteenish edge to his harmonica playing on “Midnight Angel,” and his acoustic-guitar prelude to “We’ll Carry On,” a song about the hardship of Maritime fishing life, slid nimbly into a hard-charging rock setting with the whole band.
South Rustico, Prince Edward Island’s Lennie Gallant, nominated in the best songwriter category for his song “The Pull of the Fundy Tide,” sang it and “Peter’s Dream” with salt-spray gusto at Saint John’s Imperial Theater and also at Barnacles Pub, where patrons crammed together to join lustily in the choruses. Another song written by this charismatic performer, “Pieces of You,” poignantly described the remnants of a love now ended.
Ronald Bourgeois’s “Le Long Retour” was nominated for the year’s best Francophone recording, and this singer-songwriter from Cheticamp, Cape Breton Island, often sang in Acadian French on stage. His original songs drew on heritage (Cajun music comes from Acadian culture) and adult folk-pop, not Lite but light, enough to bridge the two genres deftly. Bourgeois’s music is anything but bourgeois.
The two pairs of singing sisters making up Blacks Mountain — Lisa and Donna Bennett, and Dawn Ellis and Joyce Miller, who share the maiden name of Kennedy — have performed bluegrass, old-time country, and gospel music for 15 years out of St. Martins, New Brunswick. “We’re not exactly Britney Spears,” admitted Lisa Bennett, and these middle-aged women’s comic disdain for the celery-nibbling, bare-midriff image of so many female singers today provided a whiff of needed body-image sanity. They are four delightfully harmonizing un-divas who never got Mariah Carey-ed away with themselves.
At the Sunday night ECMA telecast, the award for roots/traditional artist of the year went to Mary Jane Lamond. She plumbs the lesser-known but no less rich tradition of Gaelic singing on Cape Breton Island.
Fellow Nova Scotian Kendra MacGillivray has a strong musical pedigree: her grandfather was fiddling legend Hugh A. MacDonald, her instructor was Stan Chapman, and her fiddle classmates included Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster. MacGillivray played the fiddle with infectious energy on stage, proving her two awards — for female artist of the year and instrumental artist of the year — were well-earned.
“Baby Barra MacNeils”: that was the moniker given by some to Sl_inte Mhath, a quintet featuring Ryan and Boyd MacNeil, two younger brothers of the more established Barra MacNeils from Sydney Mines, N.S. But Sl_inte Mhath, who’ve shared the stage with the Chieftains, the Sharon Shannon Band, and Dan_ in the past, offer a different, distinctive brand of Celtic music. They play flute, fiddle, highland bagpipes, guitar, bouzouki, drums, electric bass, bongos, shakers, and keyboards with controlled abandon, slivering their sound with intended distortion. It’s an audacious prog-trad-rock spin on Irish and other Celtic music, performed full-blast.
Two days after celebrating her 82nd birthday, Matilda Murdoch, a fiddler from Miramichi, N.B., won a Stompin’ Tom award that recognizes the unsung heroes of Atlantic Canadian music. With her son Owen on guitar and her friend Maureen Coughlan on keyboards, Murdoch received two standing ovations for her age-defying fiddling of her own tunes: “Loggieville Two Step,” “Up and Bartibog,” “The Napadogan,” and “One for Francis,” written for her late husband.
24/7 live music
Late Saturday night, I went in a shuttle van down snow-encrusted Prince William Street to the fifth annual Black Vibes showcase, hosted by the African Nova Scotian Music Association in a club called the Canadian Jungle. With me the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Myra Freeman, and her husband, plus Anna Gibbs, the cultural affairs officer at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
As the four of us walked into the packed club, rapper Papa Grand, beat boxer Kaleb Simmonds, and turntablist Skratch Bastid were on stage performing together. A nominee in the ECMA category of best urban recording, 19-year-old Kaleb Simmonds from Halifax took the rap-backing rhythm of hip-hop and transformed it through an amazing array of percussive sounds and instrumental mimicry made solely by mouth. At one point, he became a one-man band, punctuating his own steady rhythm with some soulfully elliptical singing of a Stevie Wonder song.
The retro-swing craze may have died down in the U.S., but Prince Edward Island’s Jive Kings need not worry. Most of the material the octet performed at the Imperial Theater on Feb. 1 was original and noirishly witty, dripping with a Mickey Spillane-like attitude guaranteed to elicit a smile. They ended with “Captain Crunch,” a call-and-response song filled with hilarious reactions to various breakfast cereals.
Also on stage that night were Joel Miller, a gifted tenor and soprano saxophonist from Sackville, N.B., whose melodic style fondly recalls John Coltrane and Stan Getz, and Les Muses, a comely, compelling vocal quartet from Moncton, N.B., whose eclectic, mainly French-sung repertoire covers chanson, Acadian, and modern pop and jazz songs. Les Muses especially stood out on “A La Claire Fontaine,” an Acadian traditional song, and “Java Jive,” a former hit for both the Ink Spots and the Manhattan Transfer.
In a voice with the vibrato-rich reach of Tori Amos but well-grounded in Gaelic and other traditional singing, Prince Edward Island-born Patricia Murray sang such Irish songs as “My Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier” and “I Wonder What’s Keeping My True Love Tonight” with stirring emotive power and beauty.
Though she was sometimes too precious in her presentation, Florenceville, N.B., vocalist Eleanor McCain shone in her rendition of “She’s Like the Swallow,” a song claimed by both Irish and Newfoundland folk traditions.
The rock ranged from the arena-pitched, anthemic sound of Nova Scotia’s Crush, whose hook-ladened song “Live” had the audience up and dancing, to the furtively melodic punk, grunge, and thrash-metal music of Newfoundland’s bucket truck.
Did I like everything I saw? No. In a country-music showcase at the Imperial Theater, I quickly tired of Fredericton, N.B.’s J.R. Vautour, whose hyper-energetic, insistently ingratiating performance bordered on crowd pandering. Also, New Brunswick folksinger Brent Mason had a small voice that got smaller as he sang, and Newfoundland Irish singer Neal O’Leary suffered from an all-too-familiar ballad-bashing style bred in the Maritime bars.
But these were the exceptions to a deep, diverse pool of Atlantic Canadian talent. It’s obvious that the country has much more than Olympic gold-medal ice hockey and pairs figure skating, or Roots caps and jackets, to export below.