Kicking up a Celtic storm
Feisty Slainte Mhath plays The Horseshoe
By Greg Quill - The Toronto Star
You can't really go wrong in a musical life when you're a Cape Breton MacNeil.
All six siblings of the family that gave us The Barra MacNeils — even Rita MacNeil is a not-too-distant member of the famous folk-singing clan whose origins can be traced back a couple of hundred years to a remote island off the coast of Scotland — have become professional musicians, says youngest son Ryan, who plays keyboards with the Celtic fusion outfit Slainte Mhath, pronounced "Slawncha Va."
"Our parents always seemed to want us to be doctors or lawyers, or to start our own businesses," says MacNeil on the eve of the band's performance tonight at The Horseshoe. "But one after the other, we all chose music. "It just seemed the most natural thing for us, since we've grown up in a strongly traditional musical community."
There's no competition between the more folksy Barras and the feisty Slainte, says MacNeil.
"We've always supported eachother, singing and playing on eachother's records and borrowing and lending instruments."
Slainte Mhath — it's a common Gaelic greeting meaning "good health to you," usually intoned over a frothy pint — has also claimed Ryan's brother, multi-instrumentalist Boyd. With fiddler and bodhran player Lisa Gallant, drummer/percussionist Brian Talbot and piper John MacPhee, the young MacNeils kick up a Celtic storm, combining traditional Scottish and Irish dance forms — jigs, reels and polkas — with synthesized bass and drum loops and the occasional burst of fuzz guitar and pseudo-hip-hop vocals.
The band's second full album, Va, is an extension of ideas that started bubbling up after their eponymous debut received enormous critical attention overseas, particularly in Britain and Scotland, where the band toured last year, was invited to run a daily journal on BBC Scotland's folk music Web site, was nominated in the prestigious BBC Folk Awards, and invited to perform at the big awards show concert in London.
"It started on Monday nights, when our live show is more twisted than usual. We'd fool around with drum loops, analogue synthesizers, voodoo fiddles and other technological innovations, pushing the envelope. But the trick is not to push it out of shape. Our material is based on traditional folk forms, and our audience takes that very seriously."
Seriously indeed. Last summer, in a town near Inverness where some 200 of 1,000 inhabitants are fiddlers, "they all turned out to see us play," says MacNeil. "The young musicians in the crowd were very approving.
"All over Europe, people are extremely well informed about Celtic music. You have to give them the real thing, even in the least likely places.
"I remember one town in Sweden, well above the Arctic Circle, where we played to a full house, and they knew every song in our repertoire.
"It was weird to see all these Swedes rolling along with our Scottish reels, but the more we play the more often it happens. This music has an incredibly high level of energy."