Spend An East Coast Christmas With The Barra MacNeils
The spirit of Christmas has always been reflected in the music of the season, from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Handel’s Messiah to modern pop standards delivered by everyone from Bing Crosby and Gene Autry to Mariah, Buble, and even the Beibs.
Nowhere is that joyful spirit more evident than in the songs found on “The Christmas Album,” the classic and highly revered collection of holiday magic delivered by Canada’s Cape-Breton-based Celtic ambassadors, THE BARRA MacNEILS. Since its release in 1999 and its subsequent follow-up in 2006, the Barra MacNeils’ albums have endeared themselves to fans of Christmas music by providing a direct link to warm, nostalgic memories of simpler times. That’s certainly what it evokes for one of its primary creators, multi-instrumentalist Stewart MacNeil.
“The album feels like you’re in somebody’s living room in Cape Breton enjoying Christmas,” said MacNeil, who along with siblings Sheumas, Kyle, Boyd, and Lucy began performing as the Barra MacNeils in Sydney Mines back in 1980. “For me, those albums are very much a part of what Christmas was for us. It comes across in the shows. It’s the memories of Christmas and a simpler time, a simpler life. For a lot of people, it just does their heart good to get them in the spirt of the season.”
That has always been the impetus behind the annual Barra MacNeils East Coast Christmas, a concert tour described as “a musical potpourri of traditional MacNeil family favourites gleaned from Christmas ceilidhs, midnight masses, and the general festive frolic” that accompanies the holidays. The Globe and Mail named the recording on which this tour is based as “one of the best five Christmas albums of all time,” and the family has done everything it can to bring that fusion of old world classics and modern arrangements of traditional favourites to life on stage.
Band members combine on a vast array of instruments including accordion, guitar, piano, fiddle, bodhran, mandolin, banjo, Celtic harp, tin whistles, bouzouki, and flute in delivering a show that is at times happy, sad, uplifting, and emotionally transformative. Whether than means step-dancing revelry, foot-stomping instrumentals, haunting Gaelic ballads, or Lucy’s tear-inducing of the stand “Oh Holy Night,” An East Coast Christmas with The Barra MacNeils evokes memories of Christmas past for those lucky enough to be in the audience regardless of age.
“What I do love about the show is, we have people now that take their parents to the show,” said MacNeil, who spent much of Covid downtime gardening, perfecting his sour dough, and working with sister Lucy on her new project. “People have memories of their parents taking them when they were young. Now the parents are older, kids are bringing them. That’s very special. There are also people who see it for the first time who say they’re going to make it part of their tradition, and that’s very gratifying too.”
The tour kicks off November 30th in Sarnia and is the first series of ongoing concerts The Barra MacNeils have performed since 2019, so there’s bound to be a little initial rust. However, by the time they take the stage December 5th at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, MacNeil says the band will be more than ready to shine a little Christmas light into the hearts of all fans seeking a respite from these unconventional times.
“I think people don’t realize how much effort it takes for us to be multi-instrumentalists and to learn all the various parts,” he said. “It’s one thing to record them, but to then bring that across live takes a special talent and a lot of work. I think the first part is just getting back to the level where it feels good every night. As for the audience response, I’m always amazed how much music affects people in many different ways and gets them through hard times. There is something about the season that takes us back to another time and, in a way, makes us focus on our inner spirit and takes us out of the darkness of the times.”
Get your tickets online at https://www.firstontariopac.ca/Online/default.asp.
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