"Are we now at 20 strings and two goats?"
This was the question asked into the mike by Scottish guitarist Tia Files, accompanist for the Scotland-born dynamic fiddler Rua MacMillan, as the night in New London reached its finale last Friday at the P.E.I. Mutual Festival of Small Halls.
That’s where the evening ended up, and to now help you understand how that question could ever make sense, I’ll tell you how we got there.
The evening at the New London Community Complex seemed to begin sensibly enough, as the night’s host, festival manager Debbie Atkinson, greeted the fairly good crowd in attendance for the show entitled New to London, featuring The Gawler Sisters, Ten Strings & A Goat Skin and the Rua MacMillan Trio.
The family band from Maine, The Gawler Sisters, kicked off the night’s entertainment as the three young sisters — one with a fiddle in her hands (Molly), one seated with a cello (Elsie) and the other with a banjo (Edith) — began not by playing those instruments, but rather with an impacting a cappella vocal performance of a quickly-sung version of Fiddlers Hymn, with lines intertwining in precise three-part harmony.
Guitarist Bennett Konesni (husband of Edith) then joined the sisters for the rest of the set, strumming away on a parlour-sized acoustic guitar held high to the mike, as the quartet continued with songs fueled by a folk/bluegrass/New England/pastoral flare.
As most of the group members are farmers when they’re not playing music, it makes sense that their music would have that pastoral feel.
In particular, the sound was uniquely decorated as well by the cushioning low-end presence of the cello.
Appalachian folk tunes, Maine ballads and even some quirky folk-jazz finished up the set by The Gawler Sisters but not before the four of them performed an igniting combo set of fiddle tunes with the three members of the next act to take the stage, Ten Strings & A Goat Skin.
In a fiddle-led, driving, sweeping, energy-soaring reel unlike anything you typically hear around these parts, the seven musicians (who are actually all very good friends, as they’ve performed together in various locales numerous times over the past year) played what I would probably classify as the highlight of the night until they raged to a stop that was greeted by a roaring applause.
As the Gawler Sisters exited there were a few songs to round out the first half by the young Island trio Ten Strings & A Goat Skin, who actually received their very first pay cheque as a band from The Festival of Small Halls when the act began six years ago.
Those who have heard them over these years know that they have always been impressive. But what a pleasure it was to hear Ten Strings & A Goat Skin at this point in their musical trajectory as they have refined what they do to be a seamless, polished, barrel-drum-tight, rhythmically innovative and wildly entertaining traditional music powerhouse.
And, on the subject of power, well, then there’s the Rua MacMillan Trio.
A fiddler with a distinctly Scottish glint on his notes, MacMillan wowed from one jig and reel to the next in the second half, as his acoustic guitarist (Tia Files) and a jaw-dropping bodhran player (Adam Brown) consistently wove a blanket of supportive rhythm.
At one point, we were treated to what I could only classify as the most spectacular bodhran solo I have ever witnessed as Brown rumbled and pattered in a percussive playground for three glorious minutes, all at the audience’s delight.
And, to bring it back to the quote which begins this article, the crowd’s delight continued straight through to the end as Files was indeed partly right with her observation of “Are we now at 20 strings and two goats?” as there were two goat skins (drums) in action amidst the 10 musicians that combined together for the grand finale.
But the number of strings was technically 38, as four fiddles, three guitars and a cello surged together to the tune of Frank’s Reel, bringing the crowd to a standing ovation.
Next week: It’s time for the Big Red Music Festival.
Todd MacLean is a local freelance writer and musician. If you have a comment or suggestion for a review, you can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 626-1242. But he won’t be offended if you don’t.
Todd’s weekend picks
1. Summerside Highland Gathering - College of Piping and Performing Arts, today through to Sunday, featuring a preview of 2014 Highland Storm, Ellis Family Band, Rawlins Cross and much more. Visit www.collegeofpiping.com for more information.
2. Opening weekend of Searching for Abegweit: The Island Songs & Stories of Lennie Gallant - The Mack, today and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. It plays through to Aug. 29.
3. Rawlins Cross - King's Playhouse, Georgetown, today at 8 p.m.
4. Jenn Grant - Trailside Café, Mount Stewart, today at 8 p.m. with dinner seating at 6:30 p.m.
5. Opening weekend of The Island Summer Review 2 - Harmony House Theatre, today and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Runs every Thursday to Saturday through to Aug. 30.
6. Meaghan Blanchard and Dylan Menzie - Tracadie Community Centre, today at 7:30 p.m.
7. Big Red Music Festival - Charlottetown Event Grounds, tomorrow and Sunday from 4 p.m. onward., featuring Marianas Trench, Bridgit Mendler, Lights, Sam Roberts Band, Hey Rosetta! and more. Visit http://bigredfest.ca for scheduling information.