Barra MacNeils embark on pipe organ adventure

As one of Atlantic Canada’s most celebrated Celtic music bands, The Barra MacNeils are about to embark on a new musical adventure and are inviting you to join them. Given their extensive history, it is hard to believe that there isn’t a whole lot the group hasn’t already tried or accomplished, but in a matter of teaching an old dog a new trick, the group is launching the Cathedral production to fans everywhere.

Throughout their 20-plus-year career, the band is five-time East Coast Music Award recipients and has released an astonishing 14 records together. According to Stewart MacNeil, the seed for the Cathedral project was planted by promoter Brookes Diamond a number of years back.

“It all started with a conversation that my brother Sheumas had with Brookes Diamond,” Stewart says. “Brookes discovered that Sheumas played pipe organ and for some reason, this fact had really taken him by surprise. Brookes floated the idea of putting a show together for the band that would involve the pipe organ and though we didn’t respond to it right away, he held onto that idea and ran it by us again a couple of years ago.”

Together with Diamond, Stewart says the band began putting a show prototype together and launched the first Cathedral performance this past April to a sold-out, joyous hometown crowd in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

“The response to the show given to us in Sydney was really wonderful. We were very pleasantly surprised by the response that we were given,” Stewart says.

Stating that the Cathedral show is a “musical journey through the ages”, MacNeil says it incorporates the band’s renowned brand of Celtic music while adding in the rich sounds of pipe organ, a cellist as well as a couple of guest vocalists.

During the course of the show, the band performs original music with added touches of Celtic flair in addition to music specifically written for pipe organ, including music from Johann Sebastian Bach to more contemporary fare such as Styx. MacNeil isn’t shy about admitting the music featured in their show crosses several music boundaries and categories during the approximate 80 minute show.

MacNeil says that he and the remainder of the group, including siblings Kyle, Lucy, Sheumas, Boyd, Ryan and bassist Jamie Gatti, were initially a little outside of their comfort zone when it came to assembling the soundtrack featured in the show.

“Ultimately, I think that this is the basis of what the Barra MacNeils are about. We are very lucky in that we are very accomplished in the music of Cape Breton and the Celtic tradition and that, in turn, allows us to open another page in the story of the band. People who have seen the show have been fascinated that there is a lot of music that shows the instrumental side of the band but there is also a fair amount of music that works in a vocal capacity as well.

“I feel that there is something invisible tying the show together and I truly think that it is the transcendence of music. The show is meant to be inspiring; that is what is at the heart of Cathedral and we feel it is great that we are able to musically stretch out a little bit.”

Stewart says the band is optimistic that the group will be able to bring the Cathedral show to audiences throughout Canada and the United States over the next year.

“Early indications that we are hearing is that people are anxious to see the show and we feel very fortunate for that,” he says. “Brookes Diamond has been at the helm of other productions such as the Drum show which toured to great success throughout North America and he feels that Cathedral could become a touring show and reach a wide market.”

Article published in October 28, 2010 edition of the Times & Transcript