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Slainte Mhath: stars rising in the east

By John Gillis - Nova News Net

Cape Breton's Slainte Mhath travelled to the U.K. this week to appear at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, where they wererd, nominated for the Horizon "Rising Star" awa and do a short tour.

With a new national record deal and an eagerly anticipated album ready to release, the band's profile is only going to get bigger.

Ryan MacNeil's night at the BBC 2 Folk Awards on Monday began with an opening performance by his band, Slainte Mhath (pronounced slawn-cha va, Gaelic for "good health to you"), and ended with an all-star jam alongside Celtic music legends the Chieftains. The fact that, in between, Slainte Mhath didn't pick up the award they were nominated for, didn't faze MacNeil at all.

“We’ve been having a great time,” MacNeil, the band's keyboardist, says. "The room was just full of musicians -- most of them we grew up listening to or we have their CDs. With the Chieftains, it was the age-old tunes that every Celtic band knows how to play so everybody kind of jumps up and joins in.

"I didn’t really expect to get the award," he adds, "and just the nomination really helps the profile of the band over here in the U.K.”

The Cape Breton band was nominated for the Horizon "Rising Star" Award on the basis of a 30-day tour of the United Kingdom in 2001. They were the only Canadians up for an award, and the first band ever nominated from their U.K. record label, Greentrax, which features Celtic heavyweights like Shooglenifty and Tony McManus. They opened the awards ceremony with "Brucie and the Troopers" from their 1999 self-titled album. MacNeil says the track is getting played on BBC radio.

“We made a lot of headway this summer [2001]. We certainly aren’t number one on the charts over here, but we got a lot of media. This summer, the first time we ever played London, we sold out a 1,000-seat theatre.”

The band plans to make the most of its jaunt overseas by playing shows in London, Uley and Leeds, as well as Fochabers, Scotland where they were a hit at the Speyfest folk festival last year.

Celtic fusion

Although they weren't awarded the "Rising Star" title on Monday -- it went to Irish singer Cara Dillon -- the label seems more apt now than ever. Slainte Mhath has a new record in the can and has just signed a deal with Toronto's Linus Entertainment that will ensure national distribution for the album.

Geoff Kulawick, president of Linus, calls their music "Celtic fusion."

“I don’t know any bands in the same vein," he says. "I’ve yet to hear anything that sounds like the record they just finished.”

Kulawick was eager to add Slainte Mhath to a roster that already includes pop-punk band Tuuli and acclaimed singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith.

“I’d seen them before, about a year ago, and liked them, Kulawick says. "And then I read that they were completing a new album. I called them and heard it and thought it was fabulous, and it went from there.”

The new album, "Va," was recorded in Cape Breton with producer Joao Carvalho who has previously worked with Hayden, Skydiggers and By Divine Right. Band manager Sherri Taylor expects the record to be out in six to eight weeks. After working on the album for two years, the band is glad it will soon hit the shelves.

Fans of the band are expecting the record to broaden the band's sound. Iain MacLeod, a long-time fan, and a music critic for The Coast says, “I’m really looking forward to the new CD. I’ve seen them a lot over the years and, from what I can tell, this new album is going to take them to the next level, add a new dimension. I’m really excited to see them evolve.”

MacLeod has heard some rough demos from Va. Although it's not now a household name MacLeod feels Slainte Mhath has set itself apart from other bands in the crowded Celtic field. “Their variety of influences [set them apart]. They’re not strictly traditional and they’re not strictly contemporary.”

“They focus more than a lot of other people on getting people dancing –- whether it’s square dancing or step dancing or just dancing. They’re more in line with modern dance music while still playing traditional instruments."

MacNeil's own assessment of the record falls closely in line.

“It’s definitely a little more youth-oriented I think. It’s a little hipper. We’re getting into some sampling and we’re getting into some 70s-influenced stuff.”

But they've hardly abandoned the Celtic tradition.

“We did do some straight-up traditional sets live off the floor as if you’re in somebody’s living room or something," he says. "A lot of the tunes that we’re doing very modern arrangements of are traditional tunes that have been around for hundreds of years.”

Kulawick of Linus Entertainment feels the band appeals both to a young crowd and to traditionalists.

Slainte Mhath's star is rising both in the east and the west. They are planning shows in the East Coast, Ontario and Quebec following the album's release with a Western Canada tour to follow.


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