Tunes: My Celtic Journey

Sarah Burnell Band, 2013

Graham Lindsey, Sarah Burnell, Peter McKinnon


Celtic music had never been part of my universe, despite the fact that both of my parents hail from Nova Scotia and Dad’s from Cape Breton, the land of fiddlers and ceilidhs. This changed for the better in 2010, when I joined the Sarah Burnell Band.

I had brought my guitar and mandolin along on a work assignment that had me out of town for a few days. One night, a colleague asked if I wanted to jam—he had long played in fife-and-drum bands. After a few tunes, he asked if I’d like to jam with his Celtic band. I told him I’d love to, although I didn’t know the genre. So he sent along a few chord charts and a couple of CDs the band had recorded.

A few weeks later, five of us (violin, percussion, flute, bass and guitar) gathered to play. The sound was intoxicating; the memories still give me goose bumps. The fiddler, Sarah Burnell, was amazing…the most accomplished musician I’d ever played with (as a teenager, she won a national folk-music award). After a few songs, they asked if I was free on a few specific dates that summer. As it turned out, they had a series of gigs booked and needed a guitarist. Great opportunity, although it meant I’d have to work my butt off, as Celtic rhythms and song structures were completely foreign to me. My knowledge of music theory is embarrassingly thin.

Four years later, the band is now a trio and plays six-to-eight gigs a year. It’s been an exhilarating ride. The memories of a few early shaky performances have been all but obliterated by several transcendent band-playing-as-one moments. Sarah lives in Montreal, so rehearsals are often sporadic and tend to focus on upcoming gigs. Best of all is when we work on new arrangements or originals.

One humorous anecdote illustrates my unfamiliarity with Celtic music. My bandmates asked if I knew a particular standard—I didn’t, of course, but learned it quickly. The song is Star of the County Down; I wrote it down as Starve the County Down, which made sense to me, given my knowledge of Irish history.

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Photo by Gilles St. Laurent (photoshopped by Graham Lindsey)

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