For 20 years, Cape Breton's Celtic Colours International Festival has been a success story on multiple levels, from the sheer number of visitors it brings to communities across the island every autumn to the heightened sense of community it has created among Nova Scotia traditional musicians and their colleagues from around the world.
But on a purely musical level, one of its founders' proudest achievements is the introduction of the Unusual Suspects, a huge undertaking involving dozens of players from both sides of the Atlantic, coming together to combine influences for a concert that couldn't possibly happen anywhere else in quite the same way.
After successful performances in 2004 and 2006, the festival tapped Unusual Suspects musical directors Corrina Hewat and David Milligan in Scotland to revive the concept for this year's 20th anniversary edition, running from Friday to Oct. 15, with North Sydney native Allie Bennett stepping in as co-director and arranger on the Cape Breton side of things.
The result is an evening of virtuosity and collaboration, with 27 musicians putting their skills to the test and generally having a blast on stage at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion on Saturday and again on Monday night with an encore show at Port Hawkesbury's SAERC Auditorium.
No one is looking forward to it more than the married duo of pianist Milligan and singer-harpist Hewat, who launched the concept at the 2003 Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, at a concert the latter calls "monumental." Celtic Colours co-founders Joella Foulds and Max MacDonald were in the audience that winter night, and after the show they asked the couple how they felt about creating a Cape Breton version of the Unusual Suspects, not necessarily knowing the logistics of pulling it all together.
"The first time we did it, I don't think anybody knew what it was going to be like," says Milligan. "There was a kind of a tightrope element to it, and it was probably the biggest version of it we ever did, with 33 of us. There was very limited rehearsal time, and some people walked out on stage for things we hadn't even played together yet, we'd just talked about it.
"Part of it was very exciting because we actually heard it altogether for the first time in front of an audience."
With one foot in jazz playing and arranging, and another in Scottish folk as a member of the duo Bachue with Hewat, Milligan was the right choice to oversee this ensemble that would be unlike anything previously heard in trad circles. Besides fiddles, piano and guitar there would also be horns and a rhythm section to bring the tunes to an epic level, but it also had to have its own character, so it wouldn't simply sound like an orchestra or jazz big band with a slightly Scottish flavour.
"We didn't want it to sound like an orchestra, with every fiddler playing exactly the same grace notes with the same bowing style, otherwise that would just sound like an orchestra playing traditional tunes," says Hewat. "It was really important for us to let each of the musicians bring their own regional ornamentation to the group, and letting them share that.
"So it's not just sharing tunes and a vibe, it's actually sharing different regional accents within the band, that cultural element was really very important to us."
The cultural element expanded exponentially when Hewat and Milligan brought the Unusual Suspects to Cape Breton, and in 2004 and 2006 they had Big Pond's Gordie Sampson on hand to help steer things along. Sampson's Grammy Award-winning songwriting career in Nashville prevents his participation this time around, but a past Suspect, multi-instrumentalist Allie Bennett, was up to the challenge of becoming co-director for this multi-genre folk mashup.
"David (Milligan) is a great jazz musician, and he brings that flavour to things that he does, and it makes his arrangements unique and different to what someone here might do," says Bennett, whose resume includes stints with John Allan Cameron, Rita MacNeil and Stan Rogers. "Up until the Unusual Suspects, I can't recall any other situation where a horn section was combined with the Celtic instruments, the fiddle and accordion and whistles and pipes.
"That was great to experience for the first time, and I really look forward to hearing that again this time. So there is something new that comes out of this cross-pollination, but at the same time, the traditional music core is still there. It's great that you can do that, as well as adding in these more modern-sounding arrangements."
Bennett jokes that he'd played with accordionists before, but until the Unusual Suspects came along, he'd never worked with a whole accordion section. There's also a section of bagpipe, tin whistle and flute players, several fiddlers including the Barra MacNeils' Kyle and Lucy MacNeil and Beolach's Mairi Rankin and Wendy MacIsaac, and a horn section led by the U.K.'s leading trombonist, Rick Taylor.
As an in-demand sideman, Bennett is used to variety when he comes to Celtic Colours — he's also leading the John Allan Cameron Song Session in Glencoe Station on Sunday afternoon — playing with fiddlers as well as singer-songwriters like Bruce Guthro and Dave Gunning. But being involved in the Unusual Suspects is like the icing on top of a very rich cake.
"I love the different kinds of tunes you get to work on," he says. "This year, because of the anniversary, we thought we'd draw on some past stuff from other shows as we'd need to, but in the course of preparing for this show we asked for contributions of original tunes from the players who are involved.
"There was some really good stuff that came in, so the show is going to be almost two-thirds new tunes. For example, I played fiddle in the past two Unusual Suspects, so I got to play tunes composed by the Scottish and Irish musicians, and they got to play tunes by the Cape Bretoners, and then there was the traditional stuff that we were all familiar with. It's been a very cool opportunity to learn some new and different types of music."
As a member of the horn section on trumpet, but also a skilled fiddler and guitarist, Victoria's Daniel Lapp plays a big part in helping to craft a sound that is unlike any other you'll hear at Celtic Colours. Besides Taylor on trombone, he'll be joined by Halifax's Jeff Goodspeed on saxophone and fellow trumpeter Rick Waychesko.
A player who can dip his toes into any number of genres, Lapp knows that trying to co-ordinate over two dozen musicians from different parts of the world with only a few days of rehearsal can be akin to herding cats; he's been to similar events around the world where players find themselves collaborating on stage with others they may have only just met at soundcheck, but this is something different.
"You don't always get their best performance, because it takes that kind of camaraderie and respect for people to give their all," says Lapp, in the midst of preparing for his flight to Nova Scotia. "I feel like when there's unknowns and there's not that same kind of love in the air, people hold back.
"They're feeling vulnerable, they're not used to the people or the situation they're working with, and there's an element of reserve. Here there is an unknown with the music, and there's a lot of music to plow through, but there's no reservation as far as giving it 100 per cent. Even if everyone hasn't met, and chances are not everyone has, there's still a core at the helm — with Corrina and David at the helm, and now Allie Bennett involved as well — that lets us know we're in good hands. We know the charts are going to be good, the players first-rate, and it generates a lot of excitement. I'm excited for that first rehearsal!"
Having just landed in Cape Breton at the time of this interview, Hewat and Milligan are feeling that excitement as well, preparing to meet up with old friends and collaborate with new ones.
With a few Unusual Suspects shows under their belts at this point, the pair knows that the project asks a lot from the artists involved, in terms of time and energy, but when the last note rings out over a chorus of thunderous applause, the players will have received much more in return.
"There's something about playing with other people, when musicians have this ability to find something in themselves that they're not always aware that they have. There's nothing like the pressure of time to actually force people into pulling something out of the bag," says Milligan.
"Having a short rehearsal period is usually not that conducive to creativity, but there's something that happens when everybody is after the same thing. We've always chosen musicians based on musical personality and cultural background alongside, and I think that's the secret for any band, really, that everybody has to strive for the same result."
In the film business, directors like to say that casting a movie is half the battle. The same goes for the Unusual Suspects, as the musical directors cherry-pick the players they know are ready to play, and willing to take instruction.
"And it also helps that we're all really, really nice people, and we all get along," chuckles Hewat. "Even if we'd only just met, we'll still be getting along within a half-hour when we're all playing the same tunes, we're all very amenable. So we've picked musicians for their personalities, not just their musical talent."
Borrowing a quote from another famous musical gathering, the recording of We Are the World, Milligan adds his agreement: "Everyone has to leave their ego at the door, as the saying goes."
For further information on the Unusual Suspects, and other Celtic Colours performances from Oct. 7 to 15, visit the festival website at celtic-colours.com.