Legendary Celtic music performers The Barra MacNeils, who have traveled far and wide for nearly three decades to present music from their native Cape Breton, as well as Ireland and Scotland, will journey next month to Greater Boston, where they will present a concert on March 7 at 7 p.m. in the historic Chevalier Theatre in Medford.
The event commemorates the 75th anniversary of the theatre’s dedication in memory of pioneering Medford aviator Godfrey Chevalier, the first American to land an airplane on a moving ship. The Chevalier has a Greek Revival style exterior with Art Deco interior details, including a double elliptical ceiling that provides near perfect acoustics, and over the years it has hosted local and touring musical and theatrical shows, and civic, school, and performing arts events.
Now the Chevalier will add another chapter to its distinguished history by serving as a venue for the Barra MacNeils, whose performances are noted for featuring multiple lead vocalists, songs in English and Gaelic, entrancing harmonies, numerous acoustic, stringed, percussion and wind instruments, and step dancing.
Ken Krause, a member of the board of directors for the Friends of the Chevalier Theatre – which is sponsoring the concert with the City of Medford/Mayor Michael J. McGlynn, Medford Convention Center and Auditorium Commission, Chevalier Theatre Organ Society, and the Canadian American Club of Massachusetts – says the March 7 event is all about tradition and legacy.
“The Chevalier is a point of pride in Medford, an enduring symbol of our city’s rich history, architecture, and commitment to arts and culture,” he explains. “It’s a characteristic WPA building honoring one of our foremost military veterans, Godfrey Chevalier, and it’s here today because citizens demanded it not be sold and converted to apartments in the 1980s.
“One of our goals of the 75th anniversary concert is to introduce the Chevalier Theatre to people who are unfamiliar with it. Given the Boston area’s deep roots in Celtic music and culture, we expect the Barra MacNeils to attract a large audience from around the region, which we hope will lead to more performances like this in the future.”
Band member Stewart MacNeil says he and his family view the event, their first Greater Boston area appearance in 12 years, in much the same way. The Barra MacNeils have long had a big following in Boston, for years a major destination for Cape Breton natives, and the island’s music and dance traditions live on in local halls and clubs, such as the Canadian American Club in Watertown.
“It is always exciting to return to the Boston area for a Barra MacNeils concert,” says MacNeil, who plays accordion, whistle, flute, guitar and bouzouki and sings and step dances. “There’s so much connection, shared history and culture between the Maritime region of Canada and Boston – it’s like a special visit with old friends from home each time.”
Stewart’s siblings are: Kyle (vocals, guitar, violin, mandolin), Lucy (vocals, bodhran, Celtic harp, fiddle, step dancing), Sheumas (keyboards, piano, bodhran, fiddle, bouzouki, vocals) and Boyd (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, percussion, step dancing). The band also includes Jamie Gatti on bass.
The Barra MacNeils’ resume is impressive, to say the least. They’ve released 17 albums, including three of Christmas-themed music; toured throughout Canada, the US, Europe, the United Kingdom and the Caribbean; and made frequent appearances on TV – their Christmas special also was the basis for a DVD.
That the MacNeils (“Barra” refers to the island off Scotland where the MacNeil clan is said to have originated) would take up their native music as a nearly life-long vocation is hardly surprising. Cape Breton has a well-deserved reputation for preserving its music and dance traditions: There’s an oft-repeated claim that the island has more fiddlers per capita than any other place in the world; another bit of folklore has it that all Cape Breton children are given the choice of learning fiddle, piano or step dancing – or all three.
Yet while the Barra MacNeils are living exponents of Cape Breton music and dance, they have embraced other traditions, notably that of Ireland. As Stewart MacNeil points out, their part of Cape Breton (North Sydney) had a substantial Irish population, whose musical influence – through such people as fiddler Johnny Wilmot – rubbed off on local fiddlers and other musicians.
And the band has incorporated other musical genres, including rock, pop and country, while also doing covers of contemporary songs, some of them lesser-known compositions like “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” – written by Shel Silverstein (often best remembered for his children’s books, such as “The Giving Tree”) and recorded by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show and Marianne Faithfull, among others – and English folk-rockers The Oysterband’s “By Northern Light.”
“We have a strong traditional background, of course, through our family,” says Stewart MacNeil. “But we’ve also studied classical music, and over time we got interested in other styles. I think that all of us doing vocals and playing various instruments diversifies what we can do, and help makes us all well-rounded.”
When you get down to it, though, he says, the Barra MacNeils define themselves by the music of home and hearth. “I feel the band is stronger than it’s ever been, in terms of how we’ve grown musically and personally over the years. But we have never left behind our traditional roots, and that’s resonated a lot with our core audience.
“Lucy’s voice, for example, has that really strong traditional quality to it that gets your attention. And there’s a lot of storytelling in our concerts, especially our Christmas shows, where we talk about things that are an important part of being a family – people really seem to identify with all that, whether they have connections to Cape Breton or not. So we’re looking forward to sharing our music, and our story, with everyone who comes to the Chevalier next month.”
Tickets for the Barra MacNeils concert are priced at $31 and $26 ($23 and $19 for seniors/students) and may be ordered at chevaliertheatre.com. Tickets also can be purchased at Medford Electronics, 25 Salem St., on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.