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By Dan McPeake, !earshot
The Barra MacNeils have been Canada’s Celtic Ambassadors for 25 years and celebrate with the Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s what we grew up with” states Stuart MacNeil, thinking back to the origins of the Barra MacNeils 25 years ago. MacNeil and his siblings, Lucy, Sheamus, and Kyle,have established themselves as Canada’s Celtic Ambassadors. In 2005, their two youngest siblings – Ryan and Boyd – joined the band. When asked if there was any difference between being a quartet and a six-piece, Stuart jokes that “it now takes two vans to transport us”.
In honour of their 25th anniversary, the group recently released “Live with Symphony Nova Scotia” as well as recently played shows in Victoria with the Victoria Symphony. At a glance, a Celtic group and a classical symphony may seem like an odd pairing, but the two complement each other very well. The Victoria show was labelled a Celtic celebration and the VSO started with a stirring rendition of Lord of the Dance before giving way to the multi-instrumentalists from Sydney Mines, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
“Her voice reaches the far corners of the theatre almost effortlessly”
While all the siblings are multi-instrumentalists – instruments include accordion, fiddle, harp, guitar, bodhran, bouzouki, uillean pipes, piano, mandolin – and most of them take turns singing lead, Stuart states that they most often feature Lucy because she has a wonderful voice. Lucy MacNeil possess quite a range as evidenced on the ballads “The Longest Day” and “Darlin’ Be Home Soon”. Surrounded by the wonderful acoustics of the guitar, symphony strings, and Ryan’s brilliant Uillean Pipes playing, her voice reaches the far corners of the theatre almost effortlessly. As is tradition in Cape Breton, they always include a Gaelic medley, in this case” Puirt Beul,” led by Lucy’s rapid-fire Gaelic verses. Then there is the step-dancing. What would any Celtic concert be without it? All six of siblings can step-dance and step-dance well. They do so quite frequently.
The band has been together for 25 years and it shows in their performances. Even whey they are taking the lead, each of siblings knows where to put the focus – in this case on the orchestra – a technique that even the most actor and stage performer can take years to master. They also have no qualms about leaving the stage when only certain members of the band are featured – which every sibling is. The Barra MacNeils are truly a united group dedicated to collaboration.
Dan McPeake’s radio show, Endeavours, airs Mondays on CJSF 90.1fm Burnaby and the web at cjsf.ca. It also airs on CHSR 97.9 in a one week delay.