Cape Breton’s musical tribute to Rita



From the opening strains of “Home I’ll Be,” played as a haunting slow air by Ashley MacIsaac, to the final chords of the same Rita MacNeil tune sung by the large ensemble of musicians  who gathered last night in her honor, the tribute concert organized by Joella Foulds and Max MacDonald was magnificent.

A few highlights:

No one plays Cape Breton fiddle better than Ashley MacIsaac, and the slow air displays the instrument’s greatest emotive power.

One tends to think first of Rita’s lyrics, but the concert brought home the power and grace of her melodies.

Bette MacDonald was hilarious as always, but Maynard Morrison’s comic performance was a tour-de-force. He has simply never been funnier than he was last night.

Video clips of Rita assembled by Shot-on-Site’s Darcy Campbell were alternately poignant and funny. Perhaps the best was excerpted from a Trailer Park Boys episode in which the denizens of Sunnyvale hijacked Rita’s tour bus, and forced the band to harvest marijuana, at gunpoint, in the dark. “Here’s a nice one dear.” Rita declared sweetly, passing a particularly lush frond to Ricky.

Doris Mason may be Nova Scotia’s most under-appreciated musician (“Not by me,” I hear 10,000 fans responding), and after Rita, she may have the best set of pipes. Matt Minglewood joined her in a rendition of “The Valley of Strathlorne” that was the best I’ve heard.

Matt’s vocal range and power are breathtaking. “Couldn’t you just spread him on a cracker and eat him,” Bette asked at one point, before turning back to Matt and adding, “Wait out in the truck dear, I’ll be right there.”

North Sydney native* Kim Dunnwho played keyboards in Rita’s last tour band, talked movingly of Rita’s generosity in sharing her stage with younger, less prominent musicians. His performance of “Inspiration” illustrated the point. It’s a song he wrote that Rita loved, and often asked him to sing on stage. Dunn, who now works out of Halifax, was a standout throughout the evening.

The Men of the Deeps made their thrilling signature entrance — from the back of the hall, in the dark, helmet lamps lit — as Doris sang a rousing gospel version of “Watch Over Me.” Once assembled on stage, they broke into “Coal Town Road.” A fellow performer told me several days after the show the Men were visibly shaken on by their loss.

There were so many standout performances, so many reminders of the concentrated musical talent on this island. The collective impact was a deeper impression of, and fondness for, Rita’s music and character. Proceeds from the concert will fund the Rita MacNeil Memorial Music Scholarship for students attending Cape Breton University’s new music degree program, to which you can add your donation here.

* Thanks to Angus MacDougall for pointing this out.