FolkWorld Live Review by Michael Moll
Edinburgh, as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, is always worth a journey, at any time of the year. Even in the dark autumn month of November there is plenty to enjoy - from superb restaurants and free galleries and museums via hillwalking to shopping. The annual Fiddle Festival comes as welcome bonus for all folk music fans - even though it is worth the journey on its own, especially of course for fiddle players...
The festival is now already in its nineth year, providing a successful combination of high profile evening concerts and a range of daytime workshops, masterclasses and fiddle recitals. For many years the festival has been held in the Assembly Rooms, an impressive, large building in Edinburgh's New Town comprising a range of rooms, offering a good setting for a vibrant festival. While the festival offered also impressive day time concert programme on Saturday and Sunday, with recitals of the likes of Troy MacGillivray, Simon Bradley & Luke Plum and others, I only managed to find time for the evening programmes.
The festival featured two evenings of music, Friday and Saturday. Apart from high profile concerts, the evenings also offered a ceilidh, sessions and an open stage, where both official festival musicians and others played.
The Friday evening concert is entitled "Heat the hoose", and this year the heat was very welcome indeed, as this November saw a short and sharp cold spell. The evening celebrated the "9", appropriately for a 9th festival, featuring the bands Cloud 9 and Session A9.
Cloud 9 is an all female band, which was announced in the programme as a four piece band, however the accordeonist left the band shortly before the festival. The remaining Cloud 9 consisted of fiddler and Gaelic singer Rachel Newton, saxophonist/flautist Lynsey Payne and clarsach player Fraya Thompson. The girls are all very talented musicians, and show plenty of musical ideas, however it could be felt throughout the set that the band was missing the fourth musician, especially in many of the slower tunes. Yet there was still plenty to enjoy, innovative young music, much of it self composed. One of my personal highlights was a very slow song in Gaelic, full of sadness and beauty.
I reviewed Session A9's debut CD in issue 28, saying that I had expected a bit more from the CD, from a band with such a the line-up. Well I have to say, in live Session A9 are without doubt one of the top bands on the Scottish scene. Session A9 brings together three top Scottish fiddlers - Charlie McKerron of Capercaillie, Adam Sutherland of Peatbog Fairies and Gordon Gunn - plus some superb accompanists: Kirs Drever (guitar, songs), Iain Copeland (percussion) and the wonderful Sassenach accordeonist Tim Edey. Session A9 is bursting of energy, with their fiery fiddle arrangements plus lively backing, playing great tunes based on Scottish music, with the occasional song from Kris. Most of all, it is too obvious that these guys are having a tremendous amount of fun on stage, which makes Session A9 the perfect band for festivals and memorable concerts. The energy and fun of this band simply cannot be bottled on CD - so better go and see them live!
Saturday night offered more fiddle treats. The concert started off with what you can indeed call a wonder boy - Graham Mackenzie, only 12 years old, but being already now as fine a fiddle player as some professional musicians only dream of. His music sounds mature and is indeed breathtaking. His mum, who accompanied on piano, struggled a bit to keep up with that quality. No doubt we will hear more of this talented young man in the future!
Sarah Jane Fifield, a gifted fiddle player hailing from Inverness, was joined for her set by husband Fraser on percussion, flute and sax and top guitarist Malcolm Stitt. In a few tunes I found that Fraser's flute did not add a lot to the music, in others his saxophone playing gave the fiddle tunes a new dimension. I loved in particular the Scandinavian sets, with fiddle and saxophone beautifully interluding.
Both Fraser and Malcolm remained for the main act of the evening, and personal highlight of the festival: the amazing Shetland fiddler Chris Stout with band. The band, and the music of this evening, was based on Chris' recent solo CD "First o' the Darkenin'", which was dubbed in the FolkWorld review "one of the most captivating albums in recent years", "an absolute masterpiece", and indeed features prominently in the FolkWorld Best CD of 2004 listings. In live, Chris Stout manages to re-create the magic of his exceptionally beautiful album. There is plenty of inspiration, new ideas to old tunes, exciting arrangements, a tasteful combination of melodies and instruments. The more modern arrangements are enriched by a couple of tunes closer to the Shetland tradition, featuring only harp and fiddle. Each tune is a masterpiece, perfectly arranged from start to finish. His band is exceptional as well - aforementioned Malcolm Stitt on guitar, Fraser Fifield on sax, Shetland harpist and fellow Fiddlers Bid musician Catriona MacKay, plus a double bass player (whose name I did not catch).
Chris Stout's set was a tour de force of impressive and varied music - Scottish music with a unique new twist. Definitely the band to book as a musical highlight for your concert hall in 2005!
After the concert I went down to the open stage to see what was happening there. Adam Sutherland was supposed to have a solo set, and when Adam asked whether he could bring some friends along on stage, the MC readily agreed. Not that he thought that Adam would bring along the full Session A9 line-up. After a long time of setting up, they started a never-ending tune, and after a while, I felt somehow that I have had over the last two days about as much fiddle music as I could take. As wonderful as it had been, you should always leave the party when it is at its best!
Festival or Venue Homepage: www.scotsfiddlefestival.com
CD reviews of festival artists: Session A9 - Chris Stout
Photo Credit: All photos by The Mollis - (1) Cloud 9, (2) Charlie Mackerron, (3) Session A9, (5) Graham Mackenzie, (6) Chris Stout and Catriona Mackay.
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