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Thursday, Nov 23, 2017 06:00 am / By: Dave Whitfield
If you’re searching for the ideal way to kick off your holiday season, you may want to take in a Celtic music act that has a long tradition of celebrating Christmas.
It’s been a few years, but Cape Breton’s Barra MacNeils return to the Banff Centre, Saturday (Nov. 25) with An East Coast Christmas. Now celebrating 30 years as a family band that has toured Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean, U.K. and Europe, the Banff Centre stop is the fifth on a current west to east cross-Canada tour that lands them back in Glace Bay, NS for Dec. 23.
The Barra MacNeils are siblings Kyle (vocals, guitar, violin, mandolin), Lucy (vocals, bodhran, Celtic harp, fiddle, stepdancing), Sheumas (keyboards, piano, bodhran, fiddle, bouzouki, vocals), Stewart (vocals, accordion, tin whistle, flute, bouzouki, guitar, stepdancing), Boyd (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, percussion, stepdancing) and long-time member Jamie Gatti (bass).
After putting out an inaugural album and playing Expo 86 in Vancouver, “the response was great and we’ve been going strong ever since,” said Stewart MacNeil. “It’s been a great ride for all of us.”
Not long after, in 1999, the Barra MacNeils produced The Christmas Album and began a tradition of cross-country tours and album releases, including The Christmas Album II (2006) and O Christmas Three (2013) – all filled with traditional songs featuring band members’ multi-instrumental talents, multiple lead vocals and soaring sibling harmonies.
An 18th album, On the Bright Side, is currently in the works for a release in the new year; some of the new tracks will be performed during Christmas shows.
After many cross-Canada Christmas tours over the years, a Barra MacNeils’ event has become a tradition for many people across the country – and harkens back to family members’ fond memories of their own family Christmas traditions. “For a lot of people, there’s a family tradition of going to our shows,” said MacNeil. “Often people will tell us their parents used to take them to the shows and they’re keeping up that tradition. “It’s our favourite time of the year and we love to celebrate with our fans.”
A Christmas bus tour, said MacNeil, is a time of getting together for the family members who still live in Cape Breton. “It’s family time for sure,” he said. “We catch up on our lives, we have a lot of fun on the tour and it’s a great way to see Canada.
“It’s so cool to pull into Canadian towns; they all have their own character. We’re all on board the bus, with all our instruments and merchandise, with a sound person, manager … a whole crew. “But we really appreciate each other and we all get along well. Our shows seem to be getting more popular and it’s interesting how national tours have become a tradition for the band and for a lot of music fans.”
Personally, said MacNeil, his fond memories of Christmas go back to his childhood. His grandfathers had passed away before he was born, he said, “but I have strong memories of going to my grandmothers’.
“People sometimes take it for granted, but I have fine memories of fresh baking, Christmas trees (decorations, no lights), fiddling and singing and celebrating Christmas in the home. Everyone played something, and were encouraged to play. Some of us sang in choirs and, as we got older, started to play in pubs. We all have great memories of good times and people getting together.”
MacNeil family Christmas traditions included Stewart, Sheumas and Kyle, as the oldest, playing pubs in Sydney Mines on Dec. 23, Christmas eve in the family home, road hockey and Boxing Day performances in Sydney. “I think part of us doing these Christmas shows are all the great memories, and we like to share them with people.”
With a new album in the offing, a single is scheduled for release in early December and a three-song sampler will be available for purchase at Christmas shows. In coming up with new material, the Barra MacNeils rely on writing and arranging by Stewart, and the other band members, and in looking back through the rich tapestry of Gaelic music in Nova Scotia. “We are known for our traditional music,” said MacNeil. “There’s a wealth of that stuff we can draw on. And I’m very interested in history and a student of the Gaelic language. It’s an ongoing pursuit.
“My grandparents on both sides were Gaelic speakers. My parents weren’t fluent, but it’s always been a part of our music. In 1820, Scots/Gaelic was the third most spoken language in Canada and it’s seeing a kind of rebirth in Cape Breton, with it now being taught in some schools.”
Along with Barra MacNeils Christmas albums, the multi-award winning band has produced 14 regular albums, appears with symphony orchestras and released a Christmas DVD (Cape Breton Christmas, 2001).