There are some very talented alumni from the traditional music course at The Royal Scottish Conservatoire currently active in the thriving Glasgow folk scene. It’s no surprise then, that this eponymous debut from The Madeleine Stewart Trio, features three of them. What sets Madeleine herself apart, is that she travelled from her native New Hampshire to join the course. From this life experience, she can draw on a varied set of influences – from the eclectic traditions of New England to Scotland, the Irish influences found in Glasgow and a bit more. Some of the tunes featured on the thirteen tracks are traditional, others contemporary, including Madeleine’s own compositions. Scotland features most prominently, followed by New England, with a bit of Ireland, a touch of Old England, oh and a bit of Swedish dance band. I call that eclectic!
The trio is a new project for Madeleine, who also plays with The Routes Quartet and the folk fusion band Eriska. She is joined by Rory Matheson and Craig Baxter, who are both members of TRIP, a band made up of Royal Conservatoire alumni from across these Islands. Rory is a talented pianist, with a passion for accompaniment, who has played with the likes of Hannah Rarity and Iona Fyfe. Craig is a bodhran and snare drum player, whose collaborations have included Donald Shaw and Karen Matheson, He’s also member of Gnoss.
The opening track is ‘Beatrice’, consisting of two traditional tunes. ‘Lordagskvallen’ is a gently rhythmic tune with a nice solo fiddle opening. The tempo quickens on ‘Reel Beatrice’ with the bodhran making a low key entrance, and with Madeleine’s fiddle playing adding a touch of ragtime.
The sleeve notes are not detailed and only provide titles and writing credits. ‘Lordagskvallen’ sounds Scandinavian, although I didn’t get that feeling from the tune, but I’ve not been able to find information on it. ‘Reel Beatrice’ is possibly of French Canadian origin and seems to be popular among New England fiddlers.
‘Polliwog’, is an American colloquial word for tadpoles, and the title of the next track. This features two tunes by contemporary New England musicians. Liz Carrol’s ‘The Island in the Woods’, opens with a delicate piano solo. The fiddle joins in and a beautiful tune, with a distinctly Celtic feel, develops. ‘The Polliwog’, written by Katie McNally, is livelier. Again, the bodhran arrives in a low key manner, providing muffled percussion.
‘Joseph Boseph’ is a short, lively track, on which Madeleine’s playing again has a hint of ragtime. The tune was composed by Scottish concertina player Simon Thoumire.
The next track consists of a march, a Strathspey and a reel, which might be why it’s called ‘MSR’. No other explanation is given. All three tunes were composed by seminal figures in the history of Scottish music. First up is ‘The Farewell’, a beautiful march, composed by William Marshall (1748 – 1853). It has the rhythm of a march and a lilting gentleness that reminded me of a still summer day. ‘The Iron Man’ is a bright dance tune that has nothing to do with Marvel Comics. It can’t have, seeing as it was written by ‘The King of Strathspeys’, J. Scott Skinner (1843 – 1927). The likely reason for the title is that it was written for an iron manufacturing benefactor. As with a number of other tracks the liveliest tune, in this case ‘Moneymusk’ by Eighteenth Century fiddler Daniel Dow, comes last, with the bodhran joining in at this point.
The first of Madeleine’s compositions follows. The tune is ‘Miss Mehegan of Pembroke’, and the track is called ‘Miss Mehegan’. It’s a gentle and rather lovely tune, with an interesting plucked strings section. The subject is obviously Welsh, and the plucked section reminded me of a harp. Either my imagination was working overtime, or this is a very clever touch.
Unsurprisingly, ‘Bodhran Set’ is the most percussive track here, with Craig playing his biggest part. ‘Uphill’ is a haunting tune by Andy Cuttings. ‘For Grada’, composed by another New England musician Lissa Schrechenburger, has a gentle beauty. The tempo picks up for ‘The First Rule of Box Club’. That’s a strange title, unless you know that it’s composed by Mairearad Green, a Highland accordion player who plays in a band with other box players, called Box Club.
‘Nearby, Long Ago’ is another tune written by Liz Carrol. It’s a very reflective piece on which fiddle and piano combine beautifully.
‘Reels Set’ has three traditional tunes and one by The Battlefield Band’s Alasdair White. After a more sedate start, with fiddle and piano, things get livelier and the bodhran arrives on the second tune, ‘Tame Her When da Snaw Comes’. ‘Fiona Katz’s’ features some fast fiddle and bodhran playing, as well as impressively delicate piano touches. All three play together on ‘Ferghal O Gadhra’, rounding off an enjoyable track.
‘For Engelke’ opens with ‘Engelke’s Waltz’, written by another contemporary New England artist Axel Stewart. For a waltz, fiddle and piano are a perfect combination. Things speed up on ‘Fell Court’ by English born and Glasgow based melodeon player Sam Mablett. ‘The Horses Tail’ was composed by Zoe Conway, an Irish fiddler, but I detected a New England contra dance influence in Madeleine’s playing, particularly during a fast fiddle solo.
‘City Stars’ begins with another of Madeleine’s compositions, with the same name as the track. It’s another good tune, this time with a tinkling piano opening. The Second tune is a bit of a wild card. ‘Axelito’ written by Erik Holmqvist, is a jazzy number, with a Latin beat. When I checked the composer, I found that he’s worked with Swedish dance bands as well as on a Eurovision entry. Outside the folk orbit, certainly, but fun.
‘The Head Tilt’, is another of Madeleine’s tunes, and leads off the next track, ‘Chloe Set’. It’s a very pleasant Scottish dance tune, nicely played on fiddle and piano. ‘The Happy Lamp’, written by up and coming Highland fiddler Chloe Bryce, is in a similar vein, with the bodhran joining in.
Two more tunes by prominent figures in the history of folk dance follow. They are ‘The Queen of the West’ and ‘The Good Natured Man’, which together make up ‘The Happy Couple’. The first is a complex tune, with a contra dance feel and hints of jazz. That’s not surprising as it was composed by Nineteenth Century American writer of dance music, Zeke Bachus. The second tune, a hornpipe, is very familiar, and I’ve heard it many times played for Morris dancers, without putting a name to it. From now on I can impress anyone I’m with, by identifying it as ‘The Good Natured Man’ by Nineteenth Century Tyneside fiddler James Hill.
Which brings us to the final track. This has three tunes composed by contemporary Scottish fiddler Neil Ewart, for whom the track is named. A fast, furious fiddle opening sets the pace for the whole track. This is the fieriest track on an album which is generally gentler, and it makes a suitably rousing climax to a very nice album.
On The Madeleine Stewart Trio, three very talented musicians combine on thirteen skilfully arranged tracks. Madeleine is very much the lead player, but the accompaniment of Rory and Craig add real depth to the music that a solo fiddle would not have managed. There aren’t any real fireworks here or attempts at innovation. This is a good, honest album of folk dance music, and there’s nothing wrong with that! For anyone who loves traditional dance, this is definitely worth a listen.
Artist’s website: https://www.madeleinestewart.co.uk/projects
‘Joseph Boseph’ – live at Celtic Connections: