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Cape Cod Times
August 24, 2001

Irish Tenor Shares Melody Tent Stage

By Gwenn Friss

HYANNIS - Sometimes, you should quit your day job.

It was certainly the right choice for tenor John McDermott.

McDermott was working in the circulation department of the Toronto Sun newspaper when his employers "discovered" him singing at a staff party.  Impressed, they pooled their money and financed a 1993 recording that launched a career for the then 30ish McDermott.

The self-taught singer's star has continued to rise.  He received wide recognition for his role in the "The Irish Tenors" on PBS in 1999 and 2000.  He is now a solo artist, who has sold more than a million recordings of traditional Celtic music; sang with the Boston Pops; and is involved in a PBS special on veterans.

Judging by his performance Wednesday at the Melody Tent, McDermott has not forgotten that someone once gave him a leg up.  He spent time singing and touting the work of a half-dozen song-writers.

The biggest surprise came in the first act when McDermott introduced The Cottars, a quartet of Cape Breton island children visiting the United States for the first time.  The group was formed just a few months ago, after two brother-and-sister acts met at a concert and became fast friends.

Roseanne MacKenzie, 11, made the note dance from her fiddle as she bounced to the sound, her pigtails swinging to the beat.  Her brother, Jimmy MacKenzie, 14, introduced the group's first song, saying, "This first tune was on the hit parade in Scotland - in 1743."

Fiona MacGillivray, 12, sang the ballad in its original language, her high unwavering voice evoking images of young girls sitting in a glen, braiding each other's hair as a story unfolds in song.  Her brother, Ciaran MacGillivray, 12, is magnificent n the key-board.  At the end of their set, he joined the two girls for a wee bit of step-dancing as Jimmy send out a beat n the Bodhran, a Celtic traditional drum.

The young artists' stage presence was stunning.  In an interview at  intermission, one of the mothers, Beverly MacGillivray, said her children picked up their instruments at about 5 years old but never had lessons.  Life is different in Cape Breton, she said,  There is a lot of music and frequent house parties, where it's common for children and adults to make music.  Also, the children's father, Allister MacGillivray, is a songwriter.

The audience gave The Cottars three standing ovations.  When McDermott took the stage again, someone teasingly yelled out, "See ya later, John."  McDermott teased back, "Hey, I can dance like that."

In the first hour of the show, McDermott's songs were fine, but not riveting.  I found myself wishing that he were harmonizing with other tenors.

But he and his band seemed to really warm up after intermission.  The second hour started with instrumental performance by Eamonn Dillon on Uillean pipes and penny whistle; Ray Leger on fiddle and mandolin; jazz musician Brigham Phillips on piano and vocals; and Bill Bridges, a classical guitarist who has been with McDermott since the beginning.  Each of these artist record on their own and had no trouble commanding the stage during solos.

McDermott returned with many touching ballads, including "The Wall," songwriter Tim Murphy's tribute to fallen veterans; "One Small Star," a song about how a mother looks to the stars to ease the pain of losing her child; "I Miss Him, My Old Man," about losing a father and realizing too late what has gone unsaid.

It was the closing number that really showcased McDermott's vast vocal power.  On a dark stage, Dillon played "Danny Boy" on the pipes.  Then McDermott, with a soft accompaniment from Bridge's guitar, sang the ballad of love and loss.  The last words, "return to me" went on forever in McDermott's high tenor.  It was a prayer and a benediction.