The new live album, A Celtic Celebration, by the Stratford Ontario quartet The Bookends is a collaboration with the Stratford Symphony Orchestra. The concerts, recorded last June at The Avondale, were the finale of the symphony’s 17th season. It was a much more satisfying concert than the first time the two groups got together.
“They reached out to us to do one of their annual events called ‘Cows & Classics,’ which is at a beautiful farm just east of town,” said Errol Fischer (fiddle/banjo). “But it happened to be COVID time.”
“If I recall, they were trying to fit it in, and then it had to be rescheduled,” added guitarist Pete Watson. “So we ended up playing at the farm in the barn…but to no-one.”
“Just us and cameras and haybales!,” said Errol, laughing.
After the online concert, the Bookends were invited to be a part of the symphony’s annual Celtic Celebration.
“But we showed up with an engineer and a bunch of microphones so we kind of changed it up a little bit,” Pete said, chuckling.
When an artist prepares to work with an orchestra, it’s imperative to have someone arrange the songs for an orchestral treatment. For that job the Bookends looked to Ben Bolt-Martin, who previously created string arrangements for Dayna Manning’s album, Morning Light.
“I’m not sure we could have done it without Ben’s involvement,” said Pete. “It’s a huge task and skill to orchestrate for a whole symphony.”
“The stuff he did on Dayna’s album was just gorgeous,” said Cait Watson (Irish whistle). “So we thought Ben could do some amazing things with our tunes.”
“Thank goodness I had something to do while the music was playing. Because I was trying to hold it together emotionally. I was so thrilled to have this opportunity to hear a piece of music I’d written transformed in this way.” – Cait Watson
And it’s one of Cait’s compositions, “Greystones,” that kicks off A Celtic Celebration. What had started out as a tin whistle tune that came to her while visiting her parents in County Wicklow, Ireland explodes into a symphonic flourish in concert.
“Thank goodness I had something to do while the music was playing,” she said. “Because I was trying to hold it together emotionally. I was so thrilled to have this opportunity to hear a piece of music I’d written transformed in this way. When I initially brought it to the band and we brought in the accordion and all of the other elements, it began to swell and become something more at that point. To go that next step further with the orchestration by Ben completely changed the whole thing.”
Once the orchestra arrangements had been finished, the process of rehearsing for the concerts was done separately.
“There wasn’t too much communication between us,” said Miriam Fischer (piano/accordion). “There was the set list where we handed them a few tunes and made sure we got the lengths of the program correct. We had been practicing on our end, so we kind of walked into rehearsal and said, ‘OK, here we are!’ In the end, we had two rehearsals, a dress rehearsal and the concerts.”
Recording their second album and touring with Loreena McKennitt
Adding to all of the preparations for the live shows, the Bookends were also getting ready to record their second studio album, Chapter Two.
“We were already rehearsing for that, and we were thinking about what we’re doing with the symphony and these orchestrated pieces that Ben had done for us,” said Errol. “It was June 10 and 11 that we were with the orchestra, and the following weekend, we were at a recording studio in London laying down the bed tracks for the next record.”
“And the arrangements for the orchestra on the tunes weren’t necessarily the same as on the new studio album,” added Miriam. “So we learned it for the orchestra and then we had to shift gears for the album arrangement! It was fun.”
A Celtic Celebration is the second live recording the Bookends have been involved in. Errol, Pete and Cait were part of Loreena McKennitt’s concerts in 2021, which became the album, Under A Winter’s Moon, released last November. They then toured the album through Ontario with Loreena in December.
“Loreena’s an absolute pro; she’s been at this for quite a long time,” said Errol. “She has a really good understanding of what works for her and the esthetic she’s trying to create. It was really good for us to see how that process unfolds. She has a great skill for being able to pull out the best parts of musical pieces and put them together in a way that really fits.”
“It was a really different experience from our regular performances where we play tunes, chat about the history of things and how we came together,” said Cait. “This was more of a performance. There wasn’t as much chatting back and forth. But then we had the second half where we were underscoring this incredible performance from Cedric Smith of ‘A Child’s Christmas In Wales.’ That was really unique to us, to be intermingled with spoken word in a way.”
“And she took very, very good care of us,” Pete added. “We didn’t have to worry about too much, just focus on the performance. It was a really great learning experience all ’round.”
For more on The Bookends and A Celtic Celebration, go to thebookends.ca.