The Bookends’ new live album captures Celtic collaboration in Stratford

When Celtic folk band The Bookends released their debut album weeks into Ontario’s first pandemic lockdown, the quartet from Stratford decided to deliver local orders themselves, often throwing in a short live performance at a safe distance from their fans’ front doors.

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When Celtic folk band The Bookends released its debut album weeks into Ontario’s first pandemic lockdown, the members of the Stratford quartet decided to deliver local orders themselves, often throwing in a short live performance at a safe distance from their fans’ front doors.

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“We’d play them a tune and anyone that danced, they’d get us to play a bit longer,” Cait Watson, the band’s Irish whistle player, recalled Monday. “It was just such a great way to make life a little bit different for everyone in a time when it was really kind of dark. We brought our kids along with us and they filmed a bunch of it. That got some really nice responses on social media.”

Just about three years later, The Bookends – Cait and her husband Pete, along with their Stratford neighbours Miriam and Errol Fischer – are ready to release album number two.

Private concerts are not guaranteed this time around, but there is another unique twist. The album, A Celtic Celebration, is a live recording of the band’s performance with the Stratford Symphony Orchestra last summer, a one-night only concert captured by Juno Award-winning audio engineer Jeff Wolpert.

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“It was a really magical thing,” Pete said about the experience. “We’re kind of scraggly folk musicians and so to play with real musicians – I’m kidding of course – but to play with musicians of that calibre was really exciting. I think they had a lot of fun.”

The Bookends serendipitously formed in Stratford about six years ago.

Pete, a guitar and bass player, was learning how to accompany Cait’s Irish whistle when they were one day overheard by their new neighbours, a couple from Calgary also deeply interested in Celtic music. The Fischers – Miriam plays piano and accordion and Errol is a fiddle and banjo player – joined the Watsons, and The Bookends were born.

Fittingly, the band played its first formal gig in a Stratford bar on St. Patrick’s Day in 2017. They have since captured the ears of Southwestern Ontario audiences with energetic shows that showcase traditional Irish and Scottish gems mixed with elements of rock, classical, world and folk music.

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Among their fans is the similarly inspired singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt, who invited the band to play Under A Winter’s Moon, the holiday concert she performed at a historic Stratford church last winter. That gig is where The Bookends connected with Wolpert, who was recording the concert for a live album McKennitt released in November.

Pete said The Bookends couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask Wolpert if he could also capture their performance with the Stratford Symphony Orchestra.

“He’s an unbelievable professional,” Pete said. “He knew exactly what to do.”

The Stratford Symphony Orchestra has been celebrating Scottish poet Robert Burns with an annual Celtic-themed concert for many years.

Last year’s show with The Bookends included the band’s guest percussionist, Romano Di Nillo, a Stratford-based musician who can play the bodhrán, a traditional Irish drum. Di Nillo has recently been playing the instrument on Broadway as a cast member of Come From Away, the hit Canadian musical that closed a record-breaking run in October.

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Stratford-based Celtic band The Bookends perform with the Stratford Symphony Orchestra in June 2022. (Handout)
Stratford-based Celtic band The Bookends perform with the Stratford Symphony Orchestra in June 2022. (Handout)

“We were lucky to be able to snag him and bring him in for that performance,” Cait said. “He just lends such great energy to it and an authenticity – the bodhrán is a very classic part of the Irish tradition, so (he) really gave it that feel for us.”

The Bookends’ new album, available for pre-order now before it’s released on Jan. 25, starts with original music from Cait arranged for the orchestra by Ben Bolt-Martin, a principal cellist for the Stratford Festival who often also performs with Stratford’s INNERchamber.

The tune is called Greystones, a song Cait wrote on a pin whistle she bought during a trip to Ireland to visit her family.

Hearing the orchestra perform the song “was a pretty magical experience,” Cait said.

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“I think we all welled up,” Pete added.

Bolt-Martin helped the Bookends arrange two other pieces for the concert, The Old Grove, composed by Errol, and The Salvation Contradiction, two tunes by Scottish composer Simon Bradley. Also on the record is a medley of five songs from Scotland and Canada arranged for the orchestra by Halifax-based musician Scott Macmillan.

“From the very beginning and getting into the rehearsals, it certainly felt like a daunting undertaking to step into this incredible group, but we were so warmly received and Bill Rowson (the orchestra’s principal conductor) was excellent to work with,” Cait said. “They put us at ease right away and we were able to take off. We all had some fun.”

The album – supported by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council – will be available on various streaming platforms, as well as in its physical form at Treasures and Fanfare Books in Stratford. The Bookends will also be selling copies at the Stratford Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming Celtic celebration Jan. 28 featuring special guests The Clefs of Moher.

“It was a big deal for us,” Pete said. “It was a big deal to do something on this scale. We’re very proud of what we’ve done.”


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