The historic city of Bethlehem, PA held the annual ‘Celtic Classic Highland Games and Festival’ during the first official autumn weekend of the year. Although this would be the 30th consecutive year for this festival, it was an event with which we were completely unfamiliar until just a few months ago. Receiving advance notice from Saskatchewan’s West of Mabou that they had been invited to perform at this event, the seeds were sown for making a provisional reservation on our musical calendar. Hearing shortly afterwards from Cassie and Maggie that they would be participating too, the word ‘provisional’ was quickly scratched and the 2017 Celtic Classic became an event held here in the Keystone State that we were not wanting to miss.
As the festival drew closer, the list of Canadian artists scheduled for the event grew substantially. All told, seven Canadian artists would perform on Bethlehem stages over the weekend, and we would be fortunate to catch live sets from six of them in total. Held over probably the hottest weekend in their late September history, the Canadian contingent at the Celtic Classic held their own, offering those in attendance an amazing musical experience and (hopefully) an open invitation to return once more for this prestigious Pennsylvania event.
Making our way to the ‘Tavern in the Glen’ stage on Saturday, we spent an hour discovering the Celtic-Roots music (dubbed Celtibilly) of The Steel City Rovers. Hailing from Hamilton, ON, this five-piece band from the Ontario Steel City were enthusiastic about performing their music in a city that shared its own Steel City heritage. Opening with “Summer Dance At Montmagny,” the band would demonstrate their incredible musical versatility throughout their set. With enough instruments to fill the average basement (including drummer Dave Gould’s ‘washboard tie’), the audience were treated to cuts from their self-titled album, including “Single Malt Of Knowledge,” and “Moment OF Time.”
While we would be treated to an endless supply of great Celtic music over this weekend, The Steel City Rovers separated themselves from the pack through the on-stage persona of lead singer Ryan McKenna. With his endearing charm, the theatrical element from McKenna blended perfectly with the flawless musicianship on offer from those around him. We knew that we could not fail to like a band from one of our favorite cities, but just this short time with The Steel City Rovers left us wanting much, much more of these guys in the future.
Remaining at the ‘Tavern in the Glen’ stage, we eagerly awaited the next act, siblings Qristina and Quinn Bachand, and their modern interpretation of ‘West Coast’ Celtic/Traditional music. Mixing material from both their 2011 “Family” and 2015 “Little Hinges” albums, the duo opened with “Noonday Feast/Maids of Mt Kisco/Elzick’s Farewell,” one of several traditional instrumental pieces relayed through Qristina’s fiddle and Quinn’s acoustic guitar. Other instrumental tracks included “Cumberland Gap/October,” “Lonesome Eyes,” and “The Welcome Farewell Set.”
It is wonderful to see that Qristina has utilized her vocal skills much more on the recent album, and took time to delight the audience with pieces such as “Crooked Jack,”, “Three Little Babes,” and “What You Do With What You’ve Got.” With this wonderful blend of traditional instrumental and traditional vocal music, Qristina and Quinn would close with their very own “The Banchand Jigs,” and earn the applause provided from a very energetic and entertained crowd. We spent time chatting with both artists after their show, and left with much admiration for these incredibly talented (yet very humble) siblings and their musical journey to date.
With the effects of the heat starting to take its toll, we were very grateful that the next series of concerts would take place in the air-conditioned indoor venue known as ‘The Ice House.’ Taking our place in a lengthy line of people waiting to be admitted into the building, my initial thoughts of ‘everybody wants to escape the heat’ were quickly replaced with ‘wait, these people are all very familiar with the next band’ (the band merchandise being worn and the conversations overheard would further solidify this conclusion). Securing (literally) the last remaining seats before this became a SRO event, we were ready to experience our first taste of the popular Ontario band, The Glengarry Bhoys.
While the tight confines of this packed room presented a challenge for me to make notes about their set, any thoughts of sourcing ‘blog article material’ vanished once the band came to life. It was too easy to be mesmerized by the on-stage chemistry and great Celtic tunes performed by this quintet, and as a result, this synopsis is short and sweet. I cannot recall song titles. I cannot recall references to albums. I can laugh out loud at the jokes (the stewardess impressions). I can smile when reminded of the tales told; of bassist Steve McIntosh’s experiences in Latin America, and of fiddle player D’Arcy Furniss partying a little too hard the previous evening in Bethlehem. Even as an ‘unplugged’ set, The Glengarry Bhoys raised the roof in The Ice House, leaving us with a very quick introduction to their music and a new-found knowledge of why these loyal fans had waited in line so long to see them.
As ‘The Ice House’ emptied out, and fresh music fans made their way inside, we found some better seats up front in preparation to see the next performance. Hailing from Nova Scotia, sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald graced the stage to share their Cape Breton inspired Celtic music. We had the pleasure of seeing this duo during their Spring Tour Finale in Corning, NY, and knew that we were in for a treat once again. Cassie worked both of her fiddles with ease, and added some nifty dance moves with her feet. Maggie rotated between guitar and keyboards, and would join her sister for some synchronized dancing towards the end of the set.
With their combination of both instrumental and vocal tracks, the sisters displayed their unlimited energy that they bring each and every time. Over the course of their sets (we would see them the following morning too), Cassie and Maggie would include “Hangman,” “Down In The Willow Garden,” and “Hurricane Jane.” It was an absolute pleasure to catch up with them again after their set, and as always, we strongly recommend that you take in one of their upcoming shows should they be in a town near you.
As if planned perfectly on this hot and humid day, the next performance at ‘The Ice House’ would feature Ten Strings and a Goat Skin. Hailing from Prince Edward Island, this trio of brothers Rowen and Caleb Gallant, and friend Jesse Périard, brought their fusion of Acadian-Québecois folk music to Bethlehem. With their unique mix of traditional instrumental and vocal tracks, the audience were thoroughly entertained for the full one-hour set. Two tracks that stood out in particular (at least for me) were original compositions taken from their most recent “Auprès Du Poêle” album, “Igen” and “Shoot The Moon.” Both tracks demonstrated how this trio can write and perform original material that could easily be interpreted as more traditional pieces, and their natural ability to intermix both original and traditional during their set.
Of course, the highlight would be provided by fiddle player Rowen Gallant, who had dropped hints all through the set that folks from PEI were the greatest dancers, and that he might be encouraged to display such skills later in the set. Well, of course, Rowen obliged, hitting the floor and showing off some of the most comical (not-as-advertised) dance moves witnessed by all. Equally impressive as this display of dancing were the abilities of both Caleb and Jesse to continue playing in perfect time whilst rolling around laughing at Rowen’s antics. With their high energy performance, and impeccable musicianship, Ten Strings and a Goat Skin more than earned their well-deserved standing ovation, and made many new Pennsylvanian friends in the process.
Our sixth and final Canadian artist experience would take place the next day, where we once again found great seats at the ‘Tavern in the Glen.’ This Canadian band was going to be a highlight moment for us, as we’d waited a long time to see West of Mabou live and in living color. Having already bumped into band members Alex Rasmussen and Justin Easton on the previous morning, it was good to see them setting up on stage as we arrived, along with the remaining three members Scott Benson, Roberta Wallace and Jared Dormer. Having a quick opportunity to chat with Alex and Scott during their sound check, we took our seats in anticipation of their show once the announcements were being made to introduce West of Mabou to the Celtic Classic.
The talented five-piece did not disappoint, and demonstrated their wonderful talents and dedication to traditional Gaelic music. With a strong emphasis on their debut 2016 self-titled album, it would be Jared’s thumping bass drum that would signal the opening track “Pressed For Time.” Other tracks intermixed from this impressive debut would include “E Set,” “The Foxhunter,” and “Rannie MacLellan.”
As the only fully instrumental act that we experienced, it was interesting to see how West of Mabou juggled their pieces. At any given moment, specific members would be given the spotlight. Scott and Roberta took center-stage for a two-violin solo. Alex and Jared shared a moment where pipes and cajon came together. Roberta and Justin were even given the entire stage to themselves for a solo number where violin and acoustic guitar shone. A rendition of my favorite “Gordon’s Reels” was performed too, which had almost everybody clapping and stomping with this upbeat number. West of Mabou were a delight to behold, and we only hope that they receive an invitation to return next year. With such mastery of this genre, many more of us here on the Eastern Seaboard would crave such an opportunity to enjoy live music from this band.
Our first taste of the Celtic Classic was a fantastic experience. If there is to be another influx of great Canadian Celtic and traditional music included in the line-up for 2018, we will most certainly be back to enjoy it once more. The city of Bethlehem was a wonderful host, and we look forward to seeing how the 2018 schedule develops. We express our gratitude in particular to Ryan and Dave from Steel City Rovers (hope that your video came out great, Dave J); Qristina and Quinn Bachand for the great discussion post-set (and ‘Brishen’ is amazing – thanks Quinn); Cassie and Maggie MacDonald (you are always a delight to chat with, and we hope to catch you again soon); and to West of Mabou (thanks again for informing us of your invitation to this event – we really hope you’ll head back East again soon, and we will do our best to be in the same place at the same time to support your next album release and tour).