It’s a homecoming for the Barra MacNeils

Mount Allison University’s Reunion Weekend 2012 begins tonight, and world-renowned alumni the Barra MacNeils kick off the festivities with a performance at Jennings Hall.

Four of the members of acclaimed Cape Breton Celtic band attended Mount Allison where they were enrolled in the music program. Stewart, Sheumas, Lucy, and Kyle MacNeil all studied Music at Mount Allison with Stewart majoring in piano, Kyle and Lucy in violin, and Sheumas in pipe organ.

The return of the Barra MacNeils to Sackville coincides with the group’s 25th anniversary in addition to band member Stewart MacNeil’s 25th anniversary reunion.

From Halifax, Barra MacNeils member Stewart MacNeil says that he expects this coming weekend to be a memorable one to say the least.

“It is going to be wonderful to be back and see some familiar faces,” Stewart says. “It has definitely been a while since we have been back and I think that we will all be very excited to be back in Sackville.”

While others from his graduating class have gone on to find their own success, few others from the Class of 1987 have had the opportunity to tour the world performing before adoring audiences. Though the Barra MacNeils have maintained a loyal fanbase here in Atlantic Canada, the group has also performed throughout the United States and Europe, bringing their distinctive brand of music to an international audience.

The Barra MacNeils latest release is a symphonic recording that was captured during a two-night run at Halifax’s Rebecca Cohn Auditorium last year. The album, The Barra MacNeils with Symphony Nova Scotia, features a collection of traditional Celtic arrangements by Stewart as well as the group’s long-time collaborators Chris Palmer and Eric Robertson. The record was released nationally on April 17.

“This album is a dream come true,” says Stewart. “The marriage of our Celtic traditions with classical settings has always been a natural, almost organically seamless marriage, but on this recording, the beauty of the arrangements combined with the great respect for the history of Celtic music which was shared amongst all the musicians onstage enabled us to transcend the performance, and capture a moment in time that was truly magical.

“I felt that some of the original songs that we performed with the symphony had symphonic qualities anyway. It is always nice to have that extra colour added into the songs. It is really quite explosive when we bring us all together.”

The Barra MacNeils have consistently honoured the folk-traditions that were established long before the group even picked up their instruments. Tracks featured on the record include, The Longest Day, a reel that celebrates the summer solstice; an orchestral arrangement of John Sebastian’s Darlin’ Be Home Soon; Easter Snow, featuring Ryan MacNeil on uillean pipes in an arrangement by Chris Palmer; and Northern Light, a song written by the Oysterband, that provides a crisp setting for Lucy MacNeil’s haunting vocals.

Looking forward to the remainder of the year, Stewart says the group will keep busy playing shows throughout the Maritimes while also venturing south of the border for shows in Salt Lake City and Colorado. These days, Stewart says that the Barra MacNeils are keeping a decent pace of shows spread throughout the year, allowing them to balance home life with life on the road.

“Of course, we do a major Christmas tour every year that runs through November and December and then the remainder of the year is spent playing wherever will have us,” he laughs. “I find that the pace the we are keeping these days is ideal, especially in light of how drastically the music industry has changed over the course of the last decade or so.

“It is no small feat that we are 25 years into our career. Music has been very good to us and rewarded us in ways we never could have anticipated.”

Article published in May 11, 2012 edition of the Times & Transcript