After glorious presentations in 2004 and 2006, these Suspects have been conspicuous by their absence, but this year's 20th anniversary celebration was the perfect excuse to line them up again with members old and new, for shows in Sydney on Saturday and Port Hawkesbury on Monday.
Combined, the 27 musicians assembled on stage on the latter night played with a force to match the storm raging outside the SAERC Auditorium. Hailing from Scotland, Ireland, England, Nova Scotia and British Columbia, they tore through 53 tunes and songs, with only 12 numbers repeated from previous incarnations, some familiar to the sold-out crowd, and others surprising new discoveries.
The first set began with the halting staccato rhythm of The Angus Buster, performed solo at first by Scottish fiddler Patsy Reid, before the remaining seven bows slid in alongside and four brass players' sound began swelling underneath. Percussion grew from the soft thrum of hand drums to full kit as the band crescendoed accordingly and the room was bursting at the seams with layers of sound.
And then came the pipes. The charge from Kenneth MacKenzie's and Matt MacIsaac's bagpipes on The Hair of the Dog by Tannahill Weavers' Alan MacLeod sent a thrill through the room, an audible raising of hackles, as the horns added a calypso counterpoint.
After opening with a bang, the Suspects' Cape Breton co-ordinator Allie Bennett took centre stage to perform his friend Fred Lavery's Atlantic Chorus, inspired by the sounds and sights of the composer's seaside home in Point Aconi. The pastoral depiction of morning boats and seabirds was a far cry from the stormy scene outside on the Strait of Canso, and the sweet string arrangement cast a calming spell over the crowd.
The beauty of the Unusual Suspects' lineup is that it includes individual bands (or substantial portions of them) within itself, allowing for a variety of mini-sets. One led by members of Anglo-Irish folk group Flook included their own tunes Reel for Rubik and Toward the Sun in a brilliant arrangement with the buzz and click of percussion driving a delicate whirligig tin whistle and flute melody.
Another featured Cape Breton stars the Barra MacNeils, now celebrating their 30th anniversary, on a luminous By Northern Light, with siblings Kyle, Lucy and Stewart's instinctive harmonies shining out in the dark auditorium.
Most people know the term "Manx" in reference to a cat without a tail, but from a geographical point of view, it serves to describe anything that hails from the Isle of Man. Certainly Manx band Mec Lir leaves nothing dragging behind when its members tear through a trio of traditional tunes from their homeland. They have their own cheeky flair, distinct from those of Celtic cousins in Scotland or Ireland, and a fresh strain of energy for anyone wondering where to go next for new trad sounds.
It was time to get physical with a set of island tunes by Brenda Stubbert and Jerry Holland, accompanied by step-dancing by Beolach's Mairi Rankin and Wendy MacIsaac, and the Barra MacNeils' Lucy, Stewart and Boyd, which was an unexpected treat, elevating the evening's party atmosphere.
Not to be outdone, Hewat came out from behind her harp for a swinging take on Queen of Argyll by Silly Wizard's Andy M. Stewart. The arrangement was hers, but her pianist partner Milligan's jazz influence could be felt as she swung her hips to the syncopated version of this modern Celtic classic.
Referring to the inclement conditions braved by concertgoers, Stewart MacNeil grinned, "I hope your well is full now," before brother Kyle chimed in with, "And we hope your basements are OK."
Perhaps it was appropriate the Barra MacNeils would be pining for higher ground with their version of Robbie Burns' My Heart's in the Highlands, a heart-stirring song under normal circumstances, but a heart-melting one with the extra orchestration of brass, flute, cello and strings.
"Now we're gonna play some ... jigs!" exclaimed Milligan, uttering the last word in an exaggerated stage whisper. "We actually call this 'The Relaxed Jig Set,' but it's only relaxed in relation to everything else we're doing"
The set included his own Last Night's Breakfast and Hewat's Feis Rois 25 Year Jig along with Cape Breton compositions by Andrea Beaton, Mairi Rankin and Allie Bennett & Ashley MacIsaac. As advertised, these jigs were more lyrical than hard-driving, but not exactly delicate either, with Matt Foulds' drums and Jamie Gatti's bass giving them the gears.
Gatti also set the pace with a funky solo intro to a set for pipes and horns. "They're beautiful people, and they need their space," laughed Hewat in her introduction of trumpeters Daniel Lapp and Rick Waychesko, saxophonist Jeff Goodspeed and section leader Rick Taylor on trombone, all the way from the Isle of Skye.
Matched by pipers Matt MacIsaac and Kenneth MacKenzie, they moved forth with the stately, but not too stately, Bass Strathspey featuring Sarah Allen's bass flute, before going full-tilt on the aptly named Break Yer Bass Drone. Thankfully, no drones were harmed in the execution of this foot-tapping exercise in controlled volume.
After the Unusual Suspects cranked it to 11, possibly even 12, for the encore's final blast of tunes, the sound seemed to linger in the air after the musicians had put down their instruments and the crowd was heading for the doors. Minutes later it felt like elements of harp, whistle, fiddle and brass were still whirling through the air, in tribute to the impressive level of musicality on display at SAERC Auditorium on Monday night.
Although it's a massive undertaking for all involved, and one worth risking the elements for, let's hope it's not another decade before the Suspects reassemble.
The 20th anniversary edition of Celtic Colours International Festival continues until Saturday, when it wraps up with A Toast to 20 More! at Sydney's Centre 200, with performers including Ashley MacIsaac, Slainte Mhath, Mary Jane Lamond and more. For more information about festival events, click here.