As is often the case I initially listened to The Key while driving and my first thought was that it seemed very restrained. Second time around it still seems that way, although “tight” and “controlled” might be better adjectives.
We all know how Blazin’ Fiddles can make a stage rock but this is a bit different. They start, as they must, with set of reels, ‘Break The Light’ and a set of jigs, ‘Double Rise’. Both are full of energy but allow solos to peek through. The third set, ‘The Black Pig’ opens with ‘McFall’s March’ written by Jenna Reid and initially soloed by the acoustic guitar of Anna Massie. Then the fiddles sweep in and I do mean ‘sweep’ – they arrive like an ocean tide, move through ‘Lucy Campbell’ and take the brakes off for ‘The Black Pig’ itself.
Next comes the first tune of the set to be written by band leader Bruce MacGregor. ‘Annie’s Waltz’ is a lilting fiddle duet underpinned by guitar and Angus Lyon’s piano which also opens ‘Picnic In The Sky’ linking the two tracks together. Here, a pipe march is mated with a reel by Debbie Scott and another by Matheu Watson. Ivan Drever wrote the air ‘The Rose Of St. Magnus’ which is performed as a duet by fellow Orcadian Kristan Harvey and Angus Lyon. It’s a gorgeous tune and about as mellow as Blazin’ Fiddles can possibly get but just as you might be drifting off they hit you with ‘The Ox’; a most appropriate title at this point in the programme.
‘The Beeswing’ is essentially a solo by Ruairidh Macmillan except that he’s accompanied by Angus and Annie. Now, we’re picking up the pace for ‘The Highlander’s Revenge’, another of Bruce’s tunes paired with a Jerry Holland reel featuring a bit of funky guitar and some wild fiddle playing. ‘The Silent Command’ is equally brash but the band slows the pace just a little for Hamish Napier’s ‘Wind Song’. The final set, ‘Harris Dance’, begins in proper Shetland fashion with a tune by Tom Anderson, wanders over the sea to Cape Breton and finally lands in the Hebrides for the title tune.
I think that The Key is probably the best of the Blazin’ Fiddles albums that I’ve heard, although that isn’t all of them. If there is a better one, tell me about it.
The idea of holding a folk festival in Skegness in December probably raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted. The suggestion that it should be held at Butlin’s may have caused a pursing of lips but it makes perfect economic sense. The artists have a major venue and a captive audience to add to a winter tour and the camp and its staff gets extra use and revenue. There are two main venues, both are very large and both were packed on Friday evening.
Entering the Pleasure Dome, sorry, Skyline Pavilion trying to figure out where everything was it was nice to be greeted by the harmonies of Said The Maiden on the Introducing Stage – the third open venue in the middle of the pavilion. It was nearly the end of their set, unfortunately, but we stayed to hear Kings Of The South Seas before insinuating ourselves into the Centre Stage for False Lights. Live, they are less reliant on Jim Moray’s synth wizardry and proved themselves to be an exceptionally good folk-rock band in the classic style. They may prefer to think of themselves as mould breakers but they are actually doing what some bands seem to have forgotten how. Their attempt to perform ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ without PA was not a success, however; the natural acoustics of the room are not as good as they believed.
At an event like this you can’t hear everything so I was now faced with a decision – Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band or Billy Bragg? The fact that we now had decent seats settled it and we stayed put for the first half of Eliza’s set. Her twelve piece band are set to be the next Bellowhead (whatever anybody says) and are more than up to the task. As well as old favourites, including a “duelling fiddles” interlude with Sam Sweeney in ‘My Boy Billy’, there was a new song, ‘Devil In The Woman’, slated for their first studio album. Bragg called, however, and we arrived for what seemed like the mellow end of his set with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. No! Amongst the polemic he sang ‘Between The Wars’, still powerful and relevant, and ‘There Is Power In A Union’. I reflected that the latter needs some revision with the unions battered down. We may discover that there is power in unity. ‘A New England’ wrapped up his set perfectly.
CC Smugglers followed with the sort of set that only a band as youthful as them could have the energy to play but shouldn’t have the chops to pull off. They have played so many gigs since I first saw them, even ones they weren’t invited to, and have become so tight and slick. Richie Prynne prowled his stage like a circus ringmaster, never still and rarely silent, cajoling and haranguing the audience, the songs and even his band-mates like a true showman. If the idea of the last set of the night was to wind the audience down then CC Smugglers were not the right choice.
The first and last time I heard Moulettes was at very uncomfortable gig and I was looking forward to hearing them in a nice chair. Actually, the best seating for the band is a bean bag with a lava lamp, joss-sticks and a guy dishing out small squares of blotting paper. Sadly the only mind-altering substance available was a pint of Hobgoblin. This was the final gig of the Constellations tour and Moulettes were also previewing their new album, Preternatural, with songs which, for want of more specific titles, we’ll call ‘Octopus’, ‘Nematode’ and ‘Behemoth’. I love the sound of the band, I love their instrumentation and their style but I really don’t know what they are about a lot of the time. “Surreal dreamscapes” were mentioned and I guess that’s about right.
I chatted to Ruth Skipper after the set to ask her impressions of the festival. It turned out that they had only just arrived and gone straight on stage, which accounted for some of the sound man’s problems. At their simplest Moulettes can be two guitars, bass and fiddle but at various times will be added electric cello, bassoon, autoharp, some meaty drums and keyboards and a balance that’s right for the beginning of a song may be wrong by the end. I did discover that the band were looking forward to the water-slide and hearing more music later which proves that I have no future as an investigative reporter.
Next up were Magna Carta. Chris Simpson on-stage is pretty much the same as Chris Simpson off-stage – he’s a raconteur, discursive and philosophical and Doug Morter is his perfect right hand man. Chris has surrounded himself with some very fine musicians but the set felt loose and the decision to give Morter a solo of one of his own songs seems questionable. Back on the firmer ground of The Fields Of Eden things were much more sure-footed and ‘Airport Song’ was a nice encore.
The queue for Tom Robinson curled twice round the pavilion and things were clearly running late so what might have been another difficult decision was made easier and we settled in to hear Sam Carter. He opened his set with ‘Yellow Sign’, the song he began with when I first heard him, and I was shocked to realise that that was six years ago. He has grown as an artist so much. Just when we were settling into the style of his own songs he switched to ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’, which he sings with False Lights, and ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He played a superb set which showed the power of one man and his guitar. Sam was probably the highlight of the weekend for me.
We got back just in time to catch the end of Tom Robinson’s set so I did get to sing ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ again before The Unthanks appeared on the Centre Stage. With the full ten-piece band on stage it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Niopha Keegan to the group but her trumpet playing was the fondant icing on several songs. The technical problems rolled on so The Demon Barbers XL were thirty-five minutes late on stage, almost taking the gloss off their excellent set which began with traditional songs and ended as a dance display featuring hip-hop, interpretative dance and a fearsomely fast rapper. It’s quite disconcerting to see a stage bare of wires, mic stands and other clutter but they needed all the space they could get. I got to bed by 2.00 am, more or less – it was a long day.
By midday the pace was beginning to tell and the queues for the afternoon sessions were noticeably lighter and some people I spoke to were planning a power nap in preference to more music. No such luxury for your man on the spot.
TradArrr were excellent. They can really rock and with Marion Fleetwood on lead they can turn in a bittersweet ballad like ‘My Laggan Love’ or ‘Silver Dagger’. Between them they boast five lead vocalists, a full string quartet, a keyboard player who frequently added unexpected flourishes and two drummers, one of whom plays cornet. There were hints of high camp as PJ Wright planted a foot on the foldback and Guy Fletcher prowled the stage hunched over his mandolin but they restrained themselves well. It was then a choice between waiting for Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle or scurrying off to catch The Band From County Hell – sorry Jacqui.
The Band From County Hell are a Scots/Irish group from Lincolnshire and are huge fun – ‘The Day My Granny Died’ is a song everybody should hear at least once. They have been around for a quite a while, with six albums to their credit and it seems odd that they aren’t better known – although they don’t lack for support. The first notes played by Blazin’ Fiddles were on keyboard and guitar which is, I’m sure, their little joke. It’s not logical to find them restful but they are so tight and their music is so hypnotic. I promise that I didn’t nod off but I was definitely on a different plane of existence for a lot of their excellent set.
I returned to the Introduction Stage to hear Chris Cleverley whose debut album, Apparitions, I really like. His set, mixing traditional songs and his own compositions didn’t disappoint and he’s already working in new songs including ‘All I Want’ which will send me back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as soon as time allows. I stayed for Polly And The Billets Doux, who won the day’s vote for a main stage slot next year, and The Black Feathers, who really needed a more sympathetic environment.
The Ric Sanders’ Trio have finally come out as a fun band with their new album and set of old blues, string band and swing numbers. It might be called the Vo Fletcher Trio since it is his guitar that forms the foundation and his voice that sings the songs but when the singing stops it is Ric’s flights of instrumental fancy that take their music to another place. The album is a lot of fun and their set reflected that. Then it was decision time again. I’d been told that Fotheringay would be playing the same set that they had toured all year “only better”. That was true but I missed the excitement of the earlier gigs when the band were still finding their way into, or back into, the music. Nevertheless, theirs was the set everyone wanted to hear.
Since they lost Messrs. Knight and Zorn I really wanted to hear what Steeleye Span would do. With two new musicians to induct the answer was to go back to first principles so ‘All Things Were Quite Silent’ was followed by ‘Blackleg Miner’ and ‘Weary Cutters’ was teamed with ‘New York Girls’ featuring Maddy Prior on ukulele. And they rocked. Julian Littman added a rap to ‘Boys Of Bedlam’ and Spud Sinclair played the sort of electric guitar that we haven’t heard in the band since Bob Johnson’s time. As a final touch they closed with an a capella version of Rick Kemp’s ‘Somewhere Along The Road’.
There is no getting away from the fact that playing the final set of a festival after Steeleye Span have gone off to rapturous applause is a daunting task but Folklaw threw themselves into it with energy and aplomb. Fiddler and songwriter Nick Gibbs was joined by Gaz Hunt on a minimalist drum kit, Martin Vogwell on bass and mandolin and Bryn Williams on guitar and bodhran – not to mention crossing the venue floor on the backs of chairs! They sent the crowd off exhausted but happy.
So does a December festival work once you get over the culture shock of rocking up at 5.00 pm on a Friday in the dark? This is still Skegness and with Storm Desmond blowing around us “bracing” just didn’t begin to describe it but when the wind dropped on Sunday it was mild and pleasant. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the unsung stars of the weekend were the Butlin’s staff who were friendly and helpful and worked long hours. However, this was folk music adapting to Butlin’s not the other way round. The artists existed in a bubble of stage/backstage/ accommodation or arrived, performed and left and there were quite a few I would have liked to have spoken to so I apologise to them. A bulletin board for messages or to arrange meetings wouldn’t take much to set up and would be a big help, too. But, yes, it works and if you have considered going but not done so I can recommend it.
Right from the outset, Blazin’ Fiddles was never going to be “just another band”; there was a mission and purpose!
The band was formed in 1998 by Bruce MacGregor, at that stage a lowly BBC Radio Scotland Researcher with a chip on his shoulder.
Funnily enough for a band celebrating their 15th year, the original concept was it was never intentionally to be a touring band. It was a statement about where we, as Scots and Highlanders, were in terms of musical identity, particularly the Highlands and Islands and the best way to do it was in the shape of a musical showcase.
So in early ‘98 MacGregor walked in to the office of The Highland Festival with a plan to showcase the distinct voices of the Highlands and islands fiddle music.
“I had a list of fiddle players I liked and had met at sessions or festivals. I had no budget, no idea what I was doing but I came out an hour later and we had a tour and a budget” explained MacGregor
The name Blazin’ Fiddles came with a meaning and some baggage.
The most obvious explanation to anyone who has seen the band play, describes the frenetic, sometimes manic performances of the band – something that has won them admirers from Buckingham Palace to the Albert Hall, to private concerts for the likes of Billy Connolly and Sean Connery.
The second meaning comes from Scotland’s history and the way in which religious orders and governments tried to stamp out music in the Highlands and Islands. Fiddles and pipes were piled in pyres and set alight on account of them being instruments of the devil.
The continued existence and indeed revival of the music has been phoenix-like, over the last few decades, and Blazin’ Fiddles have played more than their part.
“We’ve all been lucky enough to have been brought up and taught by true masters of the music, people who have passed on the traditions to us through difficult times. My own was Donald Riddell and Jenna’s was the great Willie Hunter – these guys didn’t just teach the music, they taught you the culture, the history and the importance of the music to your society.”
What makes Blazin’ Fiddles distinctive from other fiddle bands is their continued efforts to showcase the styles of their area. This allow audiences to hear the dialects within the music.
Trends will come and go in folk music but what you always get from Blazin’ Fiddles is 100% authenticity and passion no matter who is in the line up – and that comes because of the material and the band member’s musical heritage”.
“The history is vital for us but so is keeping the music modern and relevant to today’s audiences. That’s where Anna Massie and Angus Lyon come into the equation. Both brought up within the tradition but both happily embracing new techniques. There is a fine line between modernising a tune for the sake of it to show how clever you are with your chords and at other times just knowing that the rhythm and the melody is the key. Knowing where that line is, is the secret to developing the music and respecting the tradition”
So here we are, fifteen years down the line. The Blazers’ are still making wonderful albums, still touring (Celtic Connections on 31st January) and still winning awards (recently, winning “Folk Band of the Year” at the 2013 MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards.)
Blazin’ Fiddles are more than a band and SIX is more than an album—-Enjoy!!!!
Catalogue Number: BRCD2013
Distribution: Proper Music Distribution & Highlander Distribution
The unrestrained passion bursts forth from the string driven sound that is Blazin’ Fiddles and from the very first track “Fashion O’ The Lassies/Sound Of Mull/Janine’s Reel/The Storm” the enjoyment conveyed by each member contagiously transmits its way to the listener. In these times of notable recession it’s nice to find music so uplifting that it can’t help but bring a smile to the face of even the most jaundiced members of the public. Even without the charismatic flourishes from Catriona MacDonald but now utilising the services of the equally talented Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid and Anna Massie on guitar/fiddle the join is seamless for those of us that have been following the band’s career to date. Of course the main thrust of the recording features the fiddles of Bruce MacGregor, Allan Henderson and Iain MacFarlane packing an almighty punch and not to be outdone, the exuberant skills of Andy Thorburn’s honky-tonk piano accompaniment on James Hill’s wonderful hornpipe “The Golden Eagle” will, I’m sure be approved by musicians everywhere. All in all this is an energetic performance that should find its way onto the shelf of any self-respecting collector of ‘quality’ folk music.