Chris Stout, part of Fiddler’s Bid and also a member of Salsa Celtica (a fusion of Brazilian and Celtic musicians), has now released a solo album, First O’ the Darkenin’. It begins broodingly, Stout’s fiddle lines emerging from the fog on the opening tune, “Hillswick.” That traditional tune is coupled with “Party Scene” from Ivan Drever’s Celtic Fusion. This reminds us that we are listening to the Chris Stout Band, not just Chris Stout. Malcolm Stitt’s guitar especially works on this tune to heighten the party-like atmosphere of Stout’s fiddle.
Many of the tunes on First O’ the Darkenin’ come from Scandinavia. As I mentioned when reviewing some collections of Scandinavian artists by NorthSound, there’s a great similarity between Celtic and Scandinavian tunes.
Stout’s originals dot the landscape here. “Double Helix” is a blend of Scottish fiddle and jazz sensibilities, highlighted by Fraser Fifield’s saxophone. The band together wrote the title tune, a tonal piece, semi-improvised. Stout mentions he is interested in using traditional folk music in “creating scenes.” Indeed, such compositions would be a wonderful soundtrack for stage or screen. “First O’ the Darkenin’” is coupled with Stout’s “Baak-High,” an upbeat tune reminiscent of something that Joshua Bell & Edgar Meyer might have created on their album, Short Trip Home, which explored traditional American folk tunes. Stout’s “Baak-High” brings out the sun from the fog of the more ethereal tunes in this collection.
Back in the summer of 1998, my wife and I went to the Rolla Bay Fiddle Festival on Prince Edward Island, seeing a number of great Celtic artists. One artist there that night was a new phenom at the time, Richard Wood. Wood combined incredible fiddle work with a punk rock look, spinning around and around while he played up a storm. I bought his CD, Fire Dance, from his Da’ from the back of their car while his Da’ told me about how proud he was of his son, how his son was hitting a lot of festivals across Canada.
The CD, however, failed on some levels due to the production. A heavy use of electronic keyboards and drums minimized the very acoustic, very fluid fiddle playing. I still enjoy Wood’s CD, but I kept wishing to hear him live again, to hear that fiddle without the songs sounding a bit like canned tracks. Perhaps if I get a chance to review the newer albums, he may prove me wrong on this point.
GiveWay, a Scottish group of 4 young sisters, walks that fine line as well. Truly, the Johnson sisters are young phenoms like Wood, but their album, Full Steam Ahead, comes close being over produced like Wood’s album, taking away any live feeling. A little overemphasis on the electronic keyboard begins to erase the natural, traditional flavor of the music. For example, the bouncing beat that ties together the tunes in “Piper and the Shrew” is led by Mairi’s keyboard. Mairi’s playing would shine even more with an acoustic piano or an electronic piano with better resonance.
For the most part, Full Steam Ahead escapes this problem. That is large part to the tremendous musicianship of the Johnson sisters. Fiona’s fiddle is outstanding, especially as it blends wonderfully with Kirsty’s accordion. Amy adds nicely placed fills in the percussion. And again, the comments about the electronic keyboard sound should take nothing away from Mairi’s playing.
“Jiggin’,” a set of 4. . .jigs, begins ominously, as if the dancers are coming out of the dark alleys on a stormy night. Suddenly, the Johnson sisters launch full steam ahead into the rest of the set. It is a good example of how these sisters blend so well. The girls’ album notes say that “Monday Morning” (“Starjump”/“Monday Morning Reel”/“Dinkies”) is related to their difficulty of getting up on Mondays for school. This set indeed gives that feeling through the way they play, a pace that matches that difficulty of trying to rouse yourself from bed. Midway through finds Kirsty’s accordion doing fast lines over Fiona’s mournful fiddle, Mairi’s halting keyboard, and Amy’s impatient beat. Then they’re ready to hit the door, face the day and the new week, with the entrance of the final tune.
Fiona also contributes three originals to the album, including 2 reels, “Dusty’s Reel” and “Macca’s Reel,” in the set called “Crossing the Water.” While these reels sound traditional, you also hear Fiona’s modern musical influences (Travis, Oasis, Coldplay) in the way she strikes the bow and the beat that changes the pattern a bit from the other tunes on the album.
While the album notes and pictures don’t let you forget that they’re school girls, the playing on the album shows that they’ve graduated from school recitals to concert halls.
Incidentally, Chris Stout and GiveWay share a common trait for great song titles. Stout names his second track, “Scandanonymous,” for an anonymous Scandinavian tune. GiveWay name their first track, “Manonymous,” for the anonymous tune that begins the set—except one of them pronounced the word incorrectly. It stuck, and we all get to share in this inside joke. Both tunes show, however, that these artists are interested in the great store of traditional tunes.
Win a Scottish CD!
To get the taste of Scottish music, Greentrax Records also released this spring Reel of Four from the Occasionals. The first person to email me was Sarah Dylan Breuer. She wins this collection of tunes for Scottish Ceilidh dancing.
Thanks to Greentrax Records, Chris Stout, and GiveWay for the review copies and giveaway CD.