This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 9, 1987
Early in the first set of her sold-out show at Convocation Hall in Toronto on Saturday night, Cape Breton singer/songwriter Rita MacNeil prefaced a song with a short story about meeting two Indian medicine women during a trip to Alberta.
The women told her she should add a flash of color to the black dresses she wears to flatter her short, round body, lest the black attract darts from the audience. As she told the story, MacNeil feigned a look of horror at the mention of darts and then wondered what the women would think of, as she said in her sweet, Cape Breton brogue, her "shiny new dress from London." The story, told with self-effacing charm, seemed appropriate, and not just because it touched on MacNeil's notorious shyness and on those subjects - the women's movement and the rich and often overlooked culture that exists in Canada - with which she has been identified in the past.
It seemed appropriate because, whether she intends it or not, there is a little bit of the medicine woman in MacNeil herself and a little bit of magic in her concerts that no record can prepare you for. Even beyond openly inspirational numbers like Flying On Your Own, the title track of her fourth and most successful album, there is something restorative and enlivening about MacNeil's music.
Saturday's show, her first in Toronto since she won a Juno award for most promising female vocalist last week, was full of that magic. Her clear, Celtic-tinged voice with its gentle vibrato warmed and invigorated like a tonic and her gracious, funny stage manner and conspiratorial mid- song winks to the audience reaffirmed the sense of community that echoed through her songs.
While she did include a number of covers - including Sam Cooke's Bring It on Home to Me and Wilson Pickett's In the Midnight Hour - MacNeil was at her best when she sang her own material. Simple and often eloquent, her songs speak of the importance of place, of friends and family, of the so- called simple things and MacNeil performs them with a generosity of spirit that can't help but be moving. But even when she writes a good-time throwaway, as she admitted to doing in introducing the cheesy organ-driven rave-up called You're a Loser When It Comes To Love - "This song meant nothing to me when I wrote it . . . and it means less all the time" - she brings it to life with the power of her voice.
MacNeil told another story Saturday night, about a young girl in Halifax who, on learning that MacNeil's record had just gone gold, asked her, "Rita, did you ever think you'd be so big?"
MacNeil, looking down over her considerable bulk, said she replied, "I'd never have dreamed it honey."
If her concert demonstrated anything, it was that she deserves to be bigger.