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A Barra MacNeils Christmas

By Stephen Cooke, The Halifax Herald

Beloved Cape Breton family band gets set for festive concert tour.

Some Christmas traditions just never get old. Just as anticipated as fruitcake and broadcasts of A Charlie Brown Christmas comes the annual holiday tour by Cape Breton’s Celtic family band the Barra MacNeils.

If you have ever been to one, you can already brace yourself for the highlights, from Lucy MacNeil’s soaring — some may say definitive — rendition of O Holy Night to the rumbling harmony of brothers Kyle, Sheumas, Stewart, Boyd and Ryan on Christmas Comes But Once a Year.

Or maybe you just like to grin at the sight of bassist Jamie Gatti in his Santa hat. All of these are moments to be treasured, and they never wear out their welcome.

But this year something new has been added, with the launch of the third in the Barra MacNeils’ successful series of Christmas recordings. 1999’s The Christmas Album and 2006’s The Christmas Album II have a new baby brother in the form of the appropriately titled O Christmas Three.

In case you thought the group was running out of appropriate Christmas material, more than half of the tracks on O Christmas Three have Cape Breton origins, starting with the opening tune Bound for Bethlehem, written by the MacNeils former Sydney Mines neighbour, Bruce Guthro.

“I think it really suits Kyle’s voice, and I like the way it turned out,” says Stewart MacNeil, driving through a Quebec Winter Wonderland en route to a concert in Ottawa. “It has the feel of a journey about it, a cross between seafaring and Polar Express or something.

“Bruce spent a lot of Christmases in our living room. I remember there’d be nights where we’d finish up on the 23rd at Monty’s and then head back to the house on Clyde Avenue, and he’d be right in the middle of it all.

“Those are great memories, and it’s been great watching his talent as a songwriter get better and better.”

Further Sydney Mines content comes from veteran Nova Scotia musician Bob Quinn, who now lives in the former colliery town. He penned The Miners’ First Noel specifically with the Barras in mind, both their voices and their family history.

“Boy, he just nailed it,” says Stewart of the rousing new number. “It’s based on a story from 1929, when a group of miners were coming back to the surface after finishing off their shift, about to head home for their Christmas dinner, and the lift stopped.

“They were stuck there for four hours, and I think during that time they had a little bit of a party to keep their sanity, and when they got back to the surface, they counted their blessings, and this song marks the occasion.”

O Christmas Three is now available on iTunes and will arrive in physical form in time for the string of Nova Scotia shows that begin this Sunday in Wolfville and wrap up in Glace Bay on Dec. 22.

One special track for Stewart MacNeil is Christmas Belongs to Children. He had written the song with his uncle Charlie MacKenzie back in the ’80s, but the Barras hadn’t found a place for it until now.

“I think we finally found a great feel for the tune. It’s great that we can still find so many great traditional Cape Breton songs to play at Christmas.

“There’s a Gaelic one in The Parting Set, I’m not sure exactly who wrote it, but the theme of it is about a sailing ship leaving Boston three days before Christmas, heading for the West Indies, and they hit some bad weather. It’s the kind of thing that makes for a good milling song.”

The most touching moment on O Christmas Three has to be the tribute to one of the Barra MacNeils’ greatest mentors, a true legend of Cape Breton song, Rita MacNeil. The group performs her composition For Mary, for Joseph, from her 2002 Christmas album Late December.

MacNeil, who passed way earlier this year, often featured the group on her TV specials, Christmas and otherwise, and she included the group’s backing vocals on the original recording of For Mary, for Joseph.

“When she recorded it, she did the vocals at her home when she lived on Charlotte Street, and I think Lucy was about six or seven months pregnant,” recalls Stewart. “It was the hottest day of the summer, and Rita and Lucy were taking turns sitting in front of the air conditioner trying to cool off.”

Stewart says he still finds MacNeil’s songs “so well-crafted and memorable,” and they didn’t have to change her version of For Mary, for Joseph much at all, although they did add the sound of Lucy’s harp to give it a special Barra MacNeil’s flavour.

“It always really touched me, it was one of my personal favourites of Rita’s from the Christmas season,” says Stewart. “The images are just so vivid, it has that feel of the frost and the sound of being in the forest, just hearing the wind. It just goes to show the legacy of songs that Rita has left, and we’re still discovering that there are so many gems.”

And now the Barra MacNeils are 15 years into creating their own Christmas legacy, with the annual Christmas concert tour starting on the West Coast and working its way to the traditional finale at Glace Bay’s historic Savoy Theatre.

“It’s great going back to places like Pictou, where we did our very first theatre show, and people who were there for the early days of the Barra MacNeils come out for the shows and talk about the memories of when they first saw us,” says Stewart, who always looks forward to those final few shows at home in Cape Breton with family, friends and fans.

“Now they’re bringing their children, and even grandchildren, to the shows, and it’s a special feeling when we roll into towns and do this show. And sometimes, this is no word of a lie, we’ll be getting into a town before a show, and we’ll wind up right behind a Santa Claus parade in our bus trying to make our way to the theatre. It’s all part of the festive season.”