Thu. Apr 8 - 4:54 AM
Surprisingly, early Styx albums lend themselves well to being played
on a pipe organ, says Stewart MacNeil.
"They are a huge keyboard band," says MacNeil, who sings and plays
accordion, tin whistle, flute, bouzouki and guitar in the multiple East
Coast Music Award-winning Cape Breton band The Barra MacNeils.
"Their stuff has a real energy around it, particularly the rhythm
section, and when the Barras play it, it has a real Celtic feel. The
bodhran drives it."
Nevertheless when the Barras take to the stage on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew’s United Church in Sydney,
for their new project Cathedral, the show will be far from typical for the musical family group from Sydney Mines.
The production spans music from the past millennium, from Vivaldi to Styx, ancient chants to Bobby McFerrin and
Bach to traditional, featuring the power of the organ and instruments ranging from penny whistle to pipes.
"I think it will appeal to a wide range of people. The music crosses a lot of boundaries," MacNeil says by phone from
Cape Breton, where he’s home after returning from a three-week tour that took the family group from Texas to
Regina to Whitehorse and B.C.
Cathedral arose from discussions several years ago between Sheumas, who plays keyboards, piano, bodhran, fiddle
and bouzouki, and producer Brookes Diamond about the fact Sheumas studied pipe organ at Mount Allison University.
"Years went by and it never left Brookes’ mind," says Stewart. "Last year we talked about the idea of putting a show
together and we worked on it on and off between touring with Maynard Morrison in a directing capacity."
The whole family — Sheumas, Stewart, Kyle on vocals, guitar, violin and mandolin; Lucy on vocals, bodhran, Celtic
harp and fiddle; Ryan on keyboards, percussion, uilleann pipes, tin whistle and bodhran; and Boyd on mandolin,
fiddle, guitar, banjo and percussion — will be joined by Jamie Gatti on bass and John Spearns on cello as well as 15-
year-old twin vocalists Meghan and Mikayla Luckie-Taylor.
While the group is reworking one of its tunes, most of the material will be songs they won’t have performed before.
For example, the group has transposed a piece of music by Bach so Irish pipes and flutes could play along.
"Playing Bach in church is about as natural as it gets," says Stewart. "Some of the Vivaldi parts were written for the
organ, so the setting, a church, is where it would originally have been performed. There are a capella moments which
in a church feel really special."
And the Barras plan to perform Bobby McFerrin’s 23rd Psalm.
"I’m a huge fan of his music," Stewart says of the singer known for the hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy. "The albums have
a lot of multi-layering so it works well with the whole family performing together. The 23rd Psalm is so well written,
but there’s a challenge to it and everyone has to dig in."
Cathedral may feel like the Barras’ popular Christmas show to some audience members.
"There’s a certain feel or ambience when it’s performed in a church. Something special happens. Aside from the really
energetic parts, there are ethereal moments. We really work to create a balance to transcend the musical experience
and take people somewhere else."
Stewart says regardless of people’s religious beliefs, they will enjoy the music, which he describes as timeless and
And, he notes, there is no such thing as an old organ, just an organ that is not well-maintained.
"Both Sheumas and myself took pipe organ lessons at St. Andrew’s from Peter Fraser who is still the organist there.
Huge volumes (of music) have been written for the organ, and people don’t hear it."
As well, Stewart notes, the organ is a very physical instrument.
"When this organ is opened up to its full volume, it’s incredibly powerful. There’s no amplification, but you can feel
the wind rushing through the columns — there’s nothing that can replicate that."
He notes the pulpit in St. Andrews can be removed so people will have a good view of Sheumas playing the organ.
The group hopes to tour the project eventually and Stewart is looking forward to the feedback from this first concert.
"There’s a stereotype of what a church show can be, but there’s huge potential for a concert of this sort. It’s
wonderful music and timeless. We want people to enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoy playing it."
Published March 31, 2010
The Inverness Oran
Cathedral marks a new journey for Barra MacNeils
-by John Gillis
The Barra MacNeils are back home and busy rehearsing for a new musical venture called
Cathedral that they plan to debut on April 10th at St. Andrew’s Church in Sydney.
“We’ve been working at it and rehearsing for some time now between touring I suppose since
last summer,” said Stewart MacNeil in a telephone conversation by phone to The Oran last week.
MacNeil and his siblings had just returned from touring in Texas, British Columbia and
Whitehorse. The Sydney Mines based band has spent a good portion of each year on the road now for
more than twenty years.
“The concept for Cathedral project really began quite a few years back from a conversation
between our manager Brooks Diamond and Sheumas. Brookes found out Sheumas played the pipe
organ. He had studied it at Mount Allison. Actually, Sheumas and I both took pipe organ lessons from
Peter Fraser in Sydney many years ago. We’re looking forward to the debut, and the audience will have
the chance to hear quite a range of music – Gaelic music, ancient chants, instrumental music from Vivaldi
to Bach and some contemporary hits as well,” said Stewart.
Diamond and The Barras saw tremendous potential in exploring the use of the pipe organ with
the array of traditional instruments the Barras have mastered and how moving it would be to experience
it all in the magnificence of the great cathedrals of the world.
“We’re very excited about the possibilities of touring with this show and the potential for having
special guests. Brookes has learned a tremendous amount from taking DRUM! on the road
internationally, and he sees a lot of potential for us with this show,” added Stewart.
Stewart is also pleased with the way in which the show has been coming together.
“The whole family has been involved, suggesting pieces from many genres that have been
lifelong favourites while discovering material that we’d never heard before. The organ certainly adds a
powerful new sound, and we’ve been enjoying learning some amazingly interesting music,” Stewart
Ryan and Boyd MacNeil round out the most recent additions to the Barras. They cut their teeth
touring internationally for six years or so with the Cape Breton band, Slainte Mhath.
“Ryan and Boyd brought a whole new energy to the band. It’s really a pretty exciting time these
days (all of the siblings, Kyle, Lucy, Sheumas, himself, Boyd and Ryan are now in the band) and of course
our bass player Jamie Gatti has been with us for the past 13 years, so he’s really part of the family too,”
Again, Cathedral will debut at St. Andrew’s United Church, Sydney, on April 10th at 7:30 p.m