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Slainte Mhath's good to go

Young quintet brings freshness to Celtic music on new release
By Stephen Cooke - Halifax Herald

ANTICIPATION HAS BEEN high for a certain Cape Breton Celtic combo's second CD, in the six years since it first debuted with Prophecy.

The band has been working diligently in secret, coming up with songs and sounds that will amaze listeners, continuing an epic musical legacy and seeming leagues ahead of its last recorded adventures. Get ready for Slainte Mhath Episode II: Attack of the Clans.

Actually, the new record is called simply Va, as in the proper Gaelic pronunciation of "mhath" and it's also the French verb for "go". It can even be an abbreviation for a certain southern state, after all Virginia is for lovers. Of cranked-up Celtic music, that is.

Whatever you think it stands for, you can get a taste when Slainte Mhath (pronounced Slawn-cha-va) launches Va tonight at The Marquee Club. Originally planned as a release through Warner Music affiliate Linus Entertainment, which didn't work out in the end, Va should hit stores on June 4 as an independent release with major label distribution, once the final details are ironed out.

Prophecy may have seemed progressive when it came out, incorporating African djembe and growling sewer pipe into skilfully played jigs and reels, but Va is another beast altogether. Produced by Joao Carvalho at Soundpark and Lakewind Studios in Cape Breton, the new record makes use of samples, loops, fuzzed-out bouzouki and even some retro disco beats to prove that fiddles and pipes can shake a groove thang.

"It just kept developing on its own," says fiddler and stepdancer Lisa Gallant of the Slainte Mhath sound honed over years of touring and experimenting. "I guess our goal was just to keep playing, and try to have fun with it."

"You just do what you enjoy," adds fiddler/guitarist Boyd MacNeil, "even if it's just something as simple as putting up a drum loop on the computer and playing along with it. Nothing is really plotted out."

"We don't have a specific direction," continues Gallant. "We just go with what feels good."

In order to help Slainte Mhath find the balance between what feels good and what sounds good, the band brought in Carvalho, whose past credits include working with Toronto songwriter Gregory Hoskins and Halifax's Melanie Doane (who taught him how to record a fiddle). However, making a pure Celtic record would be a new experience for Carvalho, but this was a band eager to try new things.

"We were really lucky with Joao," says Gallant. "He took what we wanted to do, and added his thoughts without forgetting it was our project."

"He was really good at getting everybody's creative mind thinking," adds

Boyd's keyboardist brother Ryan MacNeil. "In preproduction, we just set up in a basement, played the tunes, and he suggested trying different things.

"He's really good at boosting your confidence and getting you thinking outside of the box."

There are purely traditional tracks on Va, like the Strathspey/Reel Set that fires up the middle of the disc, but most tunes have sounds that will prick up your ears, like the techno beats that creep into 004 or the vocorder hook on My New Pants.

One track that's likely to get talked about is Annie, which makes creative use of vocal samples from 40-year-old concert tapes.

"There was this concert in P.E.I. in the '60s, and my uncle Charlie MacKenzie was singing at it," explains Boyd. "All these great fiddlers are on it, Joe MacLean and Winston 'Scotty' Fitzgerald, but in-between segments there's this '60s radio voice, in that trained, obvious way of talking."

"This DJ was the host, and the intros were so funny, we kept laughing," continues Ryan. "We played it for Joao, and he says we've got to use this. The announcer's saying things like 'She dances so light you'd think she was made of Dream Whip' while introducing dancers."

It's that creative approach to Celtic that earned Slainte Mhath a nomination for the Horizon award at the BBC2 Folk Awards in February, along with invites to make a New York debut in Central Park this July 30 with Remy Shand and Bullfrog, and the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. on Canada Day.

"We didn't get (the BBC2 award), but it didn't matter," says Gallant. "We met so many people in the industry, and we opened the show, and had a really great time."

"They gave a lifetime achievement award to the Chieftains at the show, and they brought everybody in," recalls Ryan. "In the end you had the Chieftains on the stage with all the original members, and ourselves, and members of Altan, Cherish the Ladies, Natalie MacMaster, it was insane.

"If something had happened to that building, there wouldn't be any more Celtic music."

Luckily, nothing happened, Celtic music is the better for it, and Slainte Mhath will show us what the next phase sounds like when Va hits stores on June 4.


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