it's pride weekend, saturday night, and Ashley MacIsaac takes the stage in the middle of Church Street. The featured performer of the evening puts his shoulder into a traditional Cape Breton fiddle tune, one of his "songs from home," as he calls them, before his bass player, drummer, keyboardist and DJ walk on.For 27 minutes, the thousands fanning out from all sides of the stage are treated to a mixture of trad, bad, jazz and hiphop, a fusion of musical styles interspersed with MacIsaac's asides. "I don't know if you've got the spliff," he intones over one number, exhorting the audience to light up. They comply, filling the air with a sweet aroma.
In his music and his asides, the fiddler fatale regales us with stories of nearby sexual landmarks with which many are familiar -- notably the pool at the Club Toronto gay bathhouse.
It's a moment of coming together: if my dear departed dad were here, he might be puzzled by the pot and the sex talk, but he'd really get into the tunes, the way he did when he played the records of Winston Scottie Fitzgerald, the Cape Breton icon who's a major MacIsaac influence.
But at 10:17 pm, everything comes to a shocking end. As MacIsaac stands with his back to the crowd, facing the drummer, an over-exuberant spectator wearing black pants and no shirt bounds onto the stage and puts his arms around MacIsaac, who lashes out with arms and boots, violently forcing the unwanted visitor off the stage.
His orange-tinted glasses now askew, showing the rage in his eyes, the star of the evening returns to the microphone to say a miffed "good night" before departing stage left. Show's over.
If only John Allan Cameron were here, I ponder. The kilted Cape Bretoner is not as well known now as he was when he opened for Anne Murray and played fiddle music on guitar at the Grand Ole Opry. But he and MacIsaac were the bookends of Celtic when they performed at the Horseshoe a few weeks back.
As a pair, they're as novel as MacIsaac is solo, because they're so much alike and so different at the same time. It's not just a difference of age, but of style and propriety and what they're able to get away with.
This Canada Day weekend I'll be in Newfoundland, where I first heard John Allan at my Aunt Eliza's house and where Ashley is an inspiration, someone who has the courage to offend the Down East sexual prissiness and live to tell the tale.
At the Horseshoe, there are some catcalls -- "Where's your dress?" -- directed either at the gay MacIsaac or the unkilted Cameron. But on goes the show.
The Cape Breton Allstars, as they call themselves, have drawn an audience of mostly young Down Easters who've come to see MacIsaac. But they know Cameron standards like Lord Of The Dance from the family vinyl collection, and sing along. When they dance along to MacIsaac's frenetic fiddling, the floor near the stage becomes more mosh pit than hoedown.
Cameron is the evening's emcee, keeping his cool as MacIsaac lurches unpredictably from one reel to the next. The only time he looks edgy is when a guy from the audience climbs onstage to sing Farewell To Nova Scotia, accompanying his performance with a wild chicken dance that knocks over the mike stand.
But even here among the Down Easters at the Horseshoe, MacIsaac feels it's OK to ask, apropos of nothing, "Did anyone see that gay video with Matthew?" Uh?
Intrigued by this unlikely duo, I pay a visit to Cameron at his home in Pickering, an unlikely suburban address for someone who's made a career out of singing about the Mira River and other bucolic Cape Breton spots.
Over coffee and freshly baked scones served by his wife, Angela, Cameron speaks of his respect for MacIsaac, whom he credits for the surge in the popularity of Cape Breton music.
Don't some of his more trad fans look a little askance at his playing with the Jimi Hendrix of the fiddle?
"There might be a small amount of people who might be mad at me, but I don't care, because I think Ashley is a very talented individual," says Cameron, who recalls that he's taken other risks with the East Coast audience, once daring to sing the Shel Silverstein song The Three-Legged Man in Fredericton.
The closest call he had while playing with MacIsaac, he says, was a couple of years ago at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton.
"Ashley was hosting the evening, and the audience was on edge. He was having some stuff he shouldn't be having. But he did rather well, and by the end of it, when the two of us sat down and played, the audience was relieved. He was playing his traditional stuff and not saying things that were spacey."
But there's regret in Cameron's voice, too, about the chances MacIsaac has had that he himself didn't have back in the 70s. "Sometimes I wish I was on the road with him for his first year, just to be an influence."
For his part, MacIsaac plays down Cameron's father-figure status although he acknowledges the musical inspiration. "I got to listen to (the album) Here Comes John Allan because my parents had that record. The picture inspired me in a musical way, seeing that here was some man in a kilt from Cape Breton."
MacIsaac says Cameron is one of the few guitarists who can accompany a fiddler. "In a very free musical experience, whether that be the Horseshoe or anybody's kitchen or bathroom, then you let the music call how the event is going to take place. There didn't need to be any rehearsing for John Allan to go up and do that show."
There will probably be more gigs, and the antics that go with them. "Ashley will be Ashley," Cameron says.