This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 8, 1985
Singer Rita MacNeil is the kind of musical treat one feels lucky to find these days. She's an anachronism - someone who calls herself a folk singer, who actually sounds like a traditional singer, and was raised singing folk music as a native of Big Pond on Cape Breton Island. MacNeil opened a new room in Toronto on Wednesday night, The Celebrity Lounge (upstairs at The Holiday, Queen and Bathurst streets), and by the end of the evening had earned a standing ovation from the small, enthusiastic crowd.
Wearing a slouched hat, the short and squarely built MacNeil looked a little like a bewildered Cabbage Patch doll come to life as she stood in front of her rock-and-roll band. When she opened her mouth, though, everything fell into place: she possesses a crystal-clear, Celtic singing voice that, even over the clatter of her bar band, had a tingling freshness. The folksiness carries over into her song introductions - she has a shy, though direct manner - as she explains the origins of each tune.
She sings a combination of her own songs and generally well-chosen cover tunes - including The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, and Bring It On Home To Me. The originals, though, are the most poignant songs in her repertoire - such as 90 Percent Stoned, Fast Train to Tokyo (written during her recent visit to Expo '85), and a ballad dedicated to her son and daughter. The material has lovely melodies and a range of subject matter; there are love songs, work songs, songs about children - and generally songs about how working people tend to get kicked in the teeth. The politics don't feel grafted, but grow out of the daily concerns of the people she writes about.
MacNeil didn't begin singing in public until the early seventies when she lived in Toronto, performing at The Riverboat and other folk clubs. Since 1981, when she returned to Cape Breton, her career has done much better. This past year, she has performed coast to coast and played five days at Expo '85 in Japan, and next year, she'll play again at Expo '86 in Vancouver.
She has released three albums - Born a Woman (recorded in Toronto), Part Of The Mystery and I'm Not What I Seem. So far, her fan base is primarily among Maritimers and the feminist community across the country, but that seems to be changing.
Since February, MacNeil has taken on a full-time manager, Brookes Diamond, who is anxious to push her to more mainstream distribution on her next record. If he manages it, it shouldn't take long for MacNeil to gain a national following.