November 10, 2022
By D.T. Baker, Musicologist
Wherever Celts have wandered over the millennia, their music has come with them. Their music was among the first to be played by white settlers in Canada, and it has never left. But what actually defines “Celtic” music is a bit of a moving target. Fortunately, that’s part of the fun, and Edmonton musical family The McDades have certainly made the most of that.
“The McDades, as a band, are Celtic rooted,” states multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah McDade. “We all come pretty steeped in that tradition. Celtic is kind of a funny word – it implies all kinds of folk traditions – but ours is really based in Scottish and Irish music. That said, we have a lot of influences.”
The McDades have pooled many of those influences into a symphonic pops show that they first presented with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra outdoors, underneath the High Level Bridge in Kinsmen Park back in 2014. They’re doing the latest version of the show in the ESO’s Robbins Pops series November 25 & 26. “The show is named Celtic Adventures,” McDade says. “So, we’ll take a reel form, and we improvise some tin whistle in it. We like to mess with the harmony and time signatures a bit, move away from the more traditional-sounding music. But we do have some traditional-sounding tunes in the concert as well.”
Jeremiah will be joined by siblings Solon and Shannon, with Allan Gilliland conducting the ESO. “The times that we’ve played with them are really some of the best shows we’ve ever done as far as sound,” Jeremiah asserts. “There’s nothing like it, there’s really no other ensemble, to me, that has that impact or that level of musicality. It takes our music and really transcends it to the next level – it’s exciting for us.”
The McDades’ symphonic show also benefits from orchestral arrangements by Edmonton composer Allan Gilliland. “He’s a wonderful composer and arranger. He works with this kind of music really well because of his jazz background, and he’s able to mesh the orchestra with this type of music quite well.” So, it’s just as well for them that Gilliland will pick up the baton for this performance and guide the McDades and the orchestra through the charts he’s prepared.
The McDades learned their craft from the best. Their parents were also professional touring musicians. “We grew up playing with our parents – that helps I think, because it was right from the get-go,” Jeremiah says. “I started playing with my parents when I was five, touring and doing a lot of old-time dances in Canada, that kind of thing. But then, after my brother and I were done university at McGill, we just decided to start playing with each other again. There are always some kind of sibling personality things, but we seem to get through it fairly easily – communicating, talking to each other, I think that’s the key.”
Their onstage chemistry comes naturally. But their ability to seemingly know exactly where each one is, even in the middle of an extended improvised solo, has to be adapted to fit in with the score-dependent musicians in the ESO.
Jeremiah McDade explains how they overcome the challenge. “Let’s say we have an open form in one of the tunes we’re playing, or we have a number of times we play a reel within a set of reels – when it’s just us, a lot of times we can just look at each other to cue each other to move on to the next section. But a lot of those things have to be confined within a set amount of time when we play with the orchestra – so we’re counting 32 bars for example; it’s not open, there’s no room for error. So those forms tend to be more closed as compared to when we play by ourselves. That said, I can improvise all I want over those 32 bars and it doesn’t really change anything for the orchestra. It really comes down to, if the parts are well written and understandable, people can show up and play them well and hopefully there are some layers that they can dig into. We definitely worked with Allan to try to make them more than your usual pops charts.”
Expect favourite Scottish and Irish tunes, but with a modern twist, all enhanced and brought to amazing life with a symphony orchestra that knows its way around a pops show. The way things are going, there’s a good chance there will be McDades to play with the ESO for generations to come.