The Alistair McCulloch Trio summer tour has become a well-established Scottish fixture over many years now, yet this busy bunch has only just got around to recording an album. Thankfully, they have now whittled down their extensive live repertoire to the ten excellent tracks featured on Off The Hook.
Alongside legendary fiddle maestro Alistair McCulloch, the band consists of Capercaillie founder Marc Duff and Aaron Jones of Old Blind Dogs/The Kate Rusby Band. With a musical pedigree like that – McCulloch alone is 25 years a professional musician – it’s no surprise to find superb playing that’s ultra-tight, harmonious and lithe.
Aiming to capture the band’s live sound as closely as possible, the album also demonstrates a broad-church approach to its musical choices. In a 2013 interview, McCulloch said, “You’ve always got to maintain an open mind and remember folk is an evolving tradition. If you let it stand still then it will stagnate” and this album continues that commitment. Reworkings of traditional tunes and songs nestle comfortably alongside contemporary compositions, with changes to phrasing, rhythm, key or tempo allowing them to flow logically, often virtually seamlessly together.
The tune sets are inspired: ‘Mazurkas’ delicately re-phrases a pair of waltzes, while ‘Brady’s Set’ – with Duff on bodhran – connects four storming jigs. ‘Whistle Solo’ consists of a waltz and two reels, arranged by Jones and Duff, the subtlety of the guitar letting the whistle shine.
‘Shetland Medley’ draws the listener through a range of moods, starting with the tense, spare ‘Da Day Dawn’ (a traditional Shetland Christmas Day tune) and winding up at the lively ‘The Lass That Made The Bed For Me’. ‘Xesus’ takes John McCusker’s thoughtful ‘Xesus and Felicia’, letting it just about melt into ‘Farley Bridge’ with a sensitive arrangement, before a final high-speed romp through ‘The Calgary Fiddlers Welcome To Scotland’. This is first-rate tune setting and no mistake, always conscious of how each piece interacts with the next, with the whole and with the overall atmosphere.
Jones fronts the three songs on the album, each a considered reclamation of a well-trodden classic. In particular, ‘The Wild Rover’, which shrugs off its bar room machismo, becoming instead maturely rueful and reflective.
It may have been a long wait, but for those already fans of the Alistair McCulloch Trio it will have been well worth it. For those new to the trio, Off The Hook stands up as an album of top quality music-making and a hugely entertaining masterclass in how to set tunes.
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Four reels filmed during the 2017 tour: