Celtic music, especially of the Scots variety, has a mass following in Canada, with musicians covering a whole spectrum of styles from the purest tradition to rock slightly inflected with harps and whistles. The Barra MacNeils of Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, are a sibling group of the sort that seems to spring up frequently from the local scenes that still nourish Celtic traditions. They come from Cape Breton Island, where there are still a couple of thousand Gaelic speakers and lots of traditional music, and their name refers, a bit humorously, to the Hebridean island of Barra, an ancestral home of Clan MacNeil. You might expect the Barra MacNeils to fall at the traditional end of the spectrum. They do play "sets" — medleys — of traditional dance tunes, and they learned step dancing from their mom.

But that's not what sets this band apart from the other stars of Canadian Celtic music. What's unusual about the Barra MacNeils is that they can play the whole spectrum, from fiddle tunes to straight pop and rock. Classically trained, they have the chops to play a lot of different ways and make them all hold together. They sing big, original anthems of Cape Breton identity, ambitious enough to be taken as responses to Dougie MacLean's "Caledonia" (which they also perform). They do pop love songs, usually sung by the liquid-voiced Lucy MacNeil. They do work ballads, songs in Gaelic, humorous songs like "Don't Call Me Early" ("Call me what you want to, and leave me alone"), full-fledged Celtic rock, and a few of the joyous wake songs that may be Celtic music's greatest gift to the world. They sing, dance, do mouth music, and play Celtic harp and other unexpected instruments, including Brazilian drums. They write innocently idealistic songs of the sort that make hard-bitten Americans smile — and let's hope we never lose the ability to smile at them. I like their quietly personal pop songs and spare rock numbers better than their traditional pieces, which Natalie MacMaster digs into a bit more. But the biggest attraction here is the surprise that comes with each new piece and with the realization of how it fits into the group's wide musical world.

The end result is less a commercialization of traditional music than an effort to redefine what tradition is and how young people can connect to it. The Ark is noted in the folk music "industry" for bringing in a lot of Canadian music — comparable clubs don't feature nearly as much. The club is seemingly motivated not so much by the proximity of the border as by an appreciation of the ways Canadians are trying to find a place for traditional music in a modern world, more so than we Americans have ever managed.

The Barra MacNeils come to the Ark on Friday, September 12.

[Review published September 2008]