After my success sending an e-postcard from Goderich last year, I intended to send out regular updates from there this time around. I was quite keen on the idea, and scribbled out a rough draft for my first message the harsh reality hit me -- I was far too immersed in the music to spend time recording my observations. So this is a set of after-the-fact comments.
What was different this year that kept me even busier than last year? During the day, I thoroughly applied last year's lesson that whistle players could get along nicely in most of the classes ostensibly for fiddlers. Last year I was in three music classes; this year, five. No more skipping the first class period to take a nice walk on the beach.
9 AM each morning found me in Northumbrian Fiddle. (Actually, most days it found me driving to the school building -- I was chronically late all week. Or as I preferred to think of it, On Loretto Time.) I had originally planned on sampling a different regional style class each morning, but after one class with Nancy Kerr, I was hooked. She was attractive and charming, moved things along at just the right pace, and bubbled with enthusiasm for her native region's unique twist on Celtic music. It turned out to be the home for several mysterious tunes I'd learned but never known their place of origin. One of them, an ostensibly British but very Irish-feeling reel called "Pearl Wedding" (which I'd learned from the playing of the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs) turned out to be written by her fiddle teacher.
The evening after the first day of classes, she and her partner James Fagan were featured in one of the college's mini-concerts. They stole the show -- gorgeous vocal harmonies combined with superb fiddle and bouzouki work, frequently at the same time. Great material, too. They were widely considered the find of the festival this year, and the CDs they brought out sold out instantly. And they were great sports, too -- I discovered after the fact that James shows up in all of my pictures of casual music-making at the festival. He was everywhere, obviously delighting in it.
Christina Smith's Newfoundland Fiddle class turned out to be packed with beginning students. For me, the tunes she taught were almost painfully slow, but that was all right -- I was mostly there for the culture, which she provided nicely. The tunes I would pick up by dogging Christina all week, recording almost everything she did. I chatted with her quite a bit as well.
One surprise this year was the number of St Clair County musicians. I still haven't met the players from Port Huron (second year I missed them) -- but there was one from Marysville and two from China Township. They were in my afternoon classes, whistle with Loretto and Group Playing.
Group Playing led to one of the highlights of my week. A few of us formed a sub-group to perform a highly arranged set of tunes at the festival's college showcase. We opened with Scottish chamber bagpipes playing a slow air, accompanied by piano, bowed string bass, and ad lib harmony parts on fiddle and whistle. (The latter played by the lovely and talented Niamh Myers.) We switched to a strathspey version of the same tune, with melody whistle (me), banjo, and guitar joining into the mix. Someplace in there Niamh switched to bodhran, and we finished off with the Cape Breton reel "Brenda Stubbert's". Very, very fun -- the closest I've ever come to playing with a group like Lunasa. I'd love to do more of this sort of thing in the future.
The other big difference this year was my determination to take in as much music as possible. Only once did I call it quits before whatever establishment was hosting the music called it a night and kicked us out. (And that time I knew that Brock was recording the proceedings on minidisc, so that I hopefully will still get a chance to hear the music.) I'd stay to the bitter end each night, mostly listening, but playing along if I knew a tune. Sometimes I did more playing -- one night a bunch of us young turks sat in with the old masters from Sligo, and the kid from Kentucky kept starting tunes I knew. Another night those old masters had disappeared off to another pub (which I didn't know about) and we played common tunes blindingly fast while the extremely cute Canadian step dancers (Pulse plus Niamh, I think) kicked up a storm.
The final bash on Sunday night was a fitting cap to the week. For me, the action started when Christina Smith and Jean Hewson started ripping through some Newfoundland tunes, accompanied by James Fagan (like I said, he was everywhere). I couldn't resist playing along on the two that I knew. When they'd settled down to talking, I headed off to the other room for some Irish tunes. But after just a few minutes there, Paul Jennings, the drummer for Old Blind Dogs, came up to me and said, "Finlay [MacDonald, standing in for OBD's piper on this tour] wants to play some tunes. Can he borrow your whistle?" Naturally I said yes, and followed him back, fishing out another whistle for myself. Before long, I found myself playing a couple of tunes with Finlay, Paul, and James (again). Seventh heaven -- I mean, I'd spent the afternoon listening to Christina, Jean, and Old Blind Dogs in various combinations, and here I was playing with them and holding my own.
And of course, there were many old friends from last year, and a couple of new friends to spice up the mix. It seems a shame that I won't see them again for a year. But I know I'll certainly be back in 2002!