Walking into a venue and seeing a bagpipe and fiddle waiting onstage may suggest a classic Celtic show is about to go down. But with Toronto’s Enter The Haggis, the audience gets a performance that is anything but traditional.
Before taking the stage March 9 at Castaways, the men of Enter The Haggis enjoyed a game of darts and friendly conversation at the bar. As the show grew closer, people began to fill the spaces between the tables, hinting at the crowd soon to come.
The two-set show displayed the band’s extensive range and vast musical talents. Each member played at least two instruments during the set — ranging from traditional, identifiable equipment to pieces only a music buff could classify — and even the most obscure object served to create a cohesive, well-crafted sound.
Audience members spontaneously burst into traditional Irish dance as the music became progressively livelier. For those who didn’t know any jigs, the music provided plenty of cues to move gracefully. By the end of the night, the tables and chairs were pushed to the side to make space for the growing number of dancing fans.
The musicians of Enter The Haggis are expert storytellers. Whether telling the tale of guitarist and vocalist Trevor Lewington’s grandfather and his fight against pipeline drilling in “Broken Line” or the story of the Canadian fisherman in “Noseworthy and Piercy,” the music and lyrics combine seamlessly to bring the audience into their world.
The first set progressed with many tunes from the band’s most recent release, “Gutter Anthems.” The audience grew more involved as the songs brought them to new musical dimensions. After a short intermission, the guys took the stage and played a full second set with even more energy than the first. The close proximity of the band onstage and the crowd just below brought everyone together and kept the dialogue light and fun.
The musical variety in the songs kept the crowd on their toes. Members were often changing instruments between songs to match the different tone of the upcoming tune. Craig Downie, seen most often wielding the bagpipes, also played the harmonica, penny whistle, tambourine and guitar throughout the course of the show. The fast-paced “Murphy’s Ashes” particularly featured his skills on the bagpipes and drew many cheers from the crowd.
One song that left the Celtic arena and entered the rock scope was “The Death of Johnny Mooring.” The chorus was reminiscent of Utica-born blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s powerful riffs, and the distortion on the fiddle solo sounded like an epic guitar — definitely worth writing home about.
“To the Quick,” off the 2005 album “Casualties of Retail,” showcased Buchanan’s ability to rock out while multitasking, cradling his fiddle while playing the keyboard in the high-energy crowd-pleaser. Even with this dual-instrument challenge, the band maintained a perfect rhythm and harmony that made each player an integral part of the sound.
Bassist Mark Abraham, who seemed to be the quiet one, kept the rhythm throughout and provided back-up vocals for most songs, but really grabbed attention when the whole band sang together in songs like “One Last Drink.”
Throughout the show, it was obvious the band members enjoy playing with one another. During instrumental jam “Congress,” Lewington took his guitar from around his neck and shared it with drummer James Campbell, who took his sticks and provided the beat for Buchanan’s fiddle solo. It is a feat more bands should try, if just for the crowd reaction.
Following the second set, they came back on for an encore that brought everyone to their feet with cheers and more jigs. The Irish classic “Lanigan’s Ball” had the crowd shouting and dancing at a frantic pace to keep up.
When Buchanan thanked the crowd he commented, “A Tuesday night in Ithaca is like a Friday night anywhere else.” This Tuesday certainly was.