As a name, “MacKeel” doesn’t really mean anything, admits bass player Dave Hoare, with no qualms. “A lot of people have asked us about it; they think it might have some sort of [historical] significance,” he relates via the group’s car phone, en route to a gig. Not so: The name was simply chosen for its snappy Celtic sound.
But as a concept, MacKeel is effortlessly and mercilessly redefining the Celtic music scene in their native Nova Scotia — and far beyond. Formed in Pictou County in 1995, the group — which also features vocalist/award-winning fiddle player Fleur Mainville, traditional instrumentalist Dane Grant, percussionist Randy MacDonald and newcomers Darren Gallop and Mike Lelievre (replacing singer Glenn Gordon and guitarist Kevin Brennan, respectively) — began as a rock cover band that distinguished itself with the whimsical addition of Grant’s bagpipes. As group members began to find and raise their own voices, a certain kitschy approach (i.e., wearing kilts on stage) was adopted and then quickly discarded. Finally, MacKeel emerged as a creative force in its own right: a super-tight, slickly hammering pop band with a lacy top layer of Celtic alacrity courtesy of Grant’s assorted pipes and whistles, Mainville’s fiddle and MacDonald’s bodhran.
Interestingly, the biggest hit from the band’s debut CD, Plaid (released independently in 1996, then re-released by Turtlemusik in 1997) was “Star of the County Down,” a traditional melody that, in MacKeel’s version, rears up and grinds away like a horse that’s just spotted a rattlesnake.
But the band is finding it less and less necessary to hold a match under tried-and-true tunes just to get people’s attention. On the phone, Hoare maintains an air of careful mystery about their imminent new release, helped along by a swelling rainstorm that renders him more and more inaudible as the interview proceeds.
“It’s going to have the same basic feel as Plaid, but more pop-formatted. … We’re putting a different twist on it,” he explains haltingly. “As we’ve evolved, we don’t feel it’s as important to pull old favorites out of the bag for the sake of getting a rise out of people, which we sometimes used to find necessary, especially in Nova Scotia.”
Their original songs have easily found an appreciative ear with American audiences, however — and the variety of venues that have welcomed the group in both countries is nothing short of astonishing: MacKeel has shaken up universities, telethons, New Year’s Eve galas, canoe championships, Highland Games festivals, lobster festivals, berry festivals and even Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Canada Law Games (whatever they might be).
MacKeel’s maiden performance at Asheville’s unsuspecting little Jack of the Wood earlier this year was almost beam-splitting in its intensity. Back in Nova Scotia, certain die-hard purists were initially put off by the group’s devilish energy, Hoare allows: “Some people were like, ‘What are these guys doing?‘ But that just gave us more motivation.”
Though their sound is increasingly beating its way out of the bog, Hoare swears that traditional Celtic instruments will never be ousted from the band’s lineup. “Those instruments are the heart and soul of what we do, the whole grounding aspect of it,” he explains. “We do our best to incorporate them in everything we do.”
Lucky chemistry and a surprising dose of nostalgia is what keeps their vision alive, Hoare concludes. “The music itself means so much to us,” he reveals passionately: “We grew up listening to it. This is our way of keeping this old music alive, keeping the 15- and 16-year-olds interested in it. Because if things don’t evolve, they will eventually die.”