As anybody who’s grown up with a sister can attest, it’s an inexplicably complex bond that often produces a level of comfort that allows for communication without words. Celtic Colours’ “Such Devoted Sisters” show on Saturday afternoon epitomized this aspect of sisterhood in the performers’ abilities to play and sing along to one another’s tunes as if they’d done so for a lifetime, which many of them have.
Arriving at St. Matthew’s United Church in Inverness, I was queuing up along with the rest of the crowd under the bright fall sky. The church is an ideal venue for hosting a sold-out performance; having a high vaulted ceiling, dark wooden walls, and balcony, the acoustics rang through the open space providing the perfect soundscape. Of course, this was also to the credit of the sound engineer and stagehands who did excellent work –the transition between acts was smooth and sound near flawless.
Host Wendy Bergfeldt of CBC Radio emceed the show, introducing first Natalie and Brittany Haas, hailing from the United States. Both sisters tour and play on multiple albums spanning various genres. According to the sisters, the performance marked the first time they played as a duo without others on stage. The Haas sisters exhibited ease, confidence, and naturalism while playing together and the crowd immediately responded to their energy by swaying to the music and at times clapping along. The interplay between Brittany’s five-string violin and Natalie’s cello was perfectly matched among the Scottish, Scandinavian, and original tunes in their set, their right feet keeping time in unison. Growing up, the sisters had attended a fiddle camp with the Wrigley Sisters (who performed the final Sisters set), who joined them onstage to play a tune the Hass family had learned from the Wrigleys years ago.
St. Matthew’s wonderfully complemented the next performers, Scotland’s Maggie MacDonald, Mary Ann and Wilma Kennedy. The family’s soaring harmonies filled the church as though they were a choir of twenty, rather than three on stage. The women created a wall of sound with lush harmonies so perfectly in tune with each other, in a fashion typically only found among singing families. The women’s voices were the featured instrument of the set, with Wilma stepping over to the keyboard to accompany one song.
Cape Breton sisters Dawn and Margie Beaton closed the first half of the show. Having performed at Celtic Colours since the festival’s inception and as staples of the Cape Breton Celtic scene, the sisters showed how close-knit the community is by dedicating the performance to the memory of all the talented musicians the island has lost over the past year, beginning with a mournful lament that slowly built momentum into a rollicking traditional fiddle set. With Margie switching between violin and piano, they finished the set with tunes by Francis MacDonald and Buddy MacMaster.
Dawn and Helen MacDonald opened the show’s second half. Known primarily for their accomplished step dancing, they proved that their talents are vast, performing tunes on fiddle and piano, while also pleasing the crowd with their stepping talents. Growing up in River Ryan and learning dance under Kaye Hanrahan, the sisters are now teachers themselves.
The Wrigley Sisters’ set was enthusiastically appreciated by the audience, who gave a standing ovation following the performance. Jennifer and Hazel are twins from Orkney, Scotland, who have performed live together since they were eight years old, having toured the world and played in 47 countries. Consummate musicians and entertainers, their set showcased skill and humour, sometimes even integrating lightheartedness into the performance. The set ranged from slow tunes, traditional Scottish numbers, to a medley that, at times, felt the audience transported to a venerable mad carnival. The Wrigleys deserve their world-class reputation and festival attendees should seek out their remaining performances.
The show ended with a final number performed by all the musicians together on stage, with the MacDonald sisters stepping to the tune, and Margie Beaton switching from fiddle to piano mid-performance. Between the audience response and the skilled, joyful performances, “Such Devoted Sisters” was definitely a successful event, held on a glorious fall day in a beautiful venue. I thought of my sisters often during the show, as I’m sure many did.