Concert Review: Highland, Heath, and Holler
Troy Music Hall, 3/10/07
By Glenn Weiser, Metroland, Feb 1, 2007

(The edited version was somewhat shorter; I've it to its original length-GW)
Celtic fiddle music has tickled ears in here in America since colonial times. The Irish jig “Haste to the Wedding, still heard today, was George Washington’s favorite dance tune, and Thomas Jefferson was playing and even notating his father’s favorite fiddle melodies by age 14. Taken into the Southern Appalachians in the 18th century by Scotch-Irish settlers forced out of Ulster by high rents, the jigs, reels, and hornpipes changed with time, becoming less ornate and more lyrical.

Last Saturday, three top fiddlers—Ireland’s Martin Hayes, Scotland’s Alasdair Fraser, and Appalachian-style fiddler and banjoist Bruce Molsky—appeared at a half-full Troy Music Hall along with accompanists Dennis Cahill on nylon-string guitar and Natalie Haas on cello for an exuberant celebration of the fiddle’s journey from the lands of the thistle and shamrock to the Great Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains.

Given the common complaint that fiddle tunes often sound too much alike, I wondered how the performers would tackle the challenge of playing an entire evening of them without including several songs for variety as Celtic bands usually do. As it turned out, they kept the show fresh through frequent changes in lineup—each fiddler would solo, play with either or both accompanists, or huddle in pairs or a trio bowing madly away with both backup players accompanying.

Opening was Martin Hayes, 45, of County Clare, whose trademark is slowing down the normally quick Irish dance tunes, with Chicago-born Dennis Cahill skillfully backing on guitar. As the deadpan-faced Cahill looked on, Hayes bantered with the audience and then sat down and played a slow, modal air, “The Wind-Swept Hills of Tullah.” He followed it with a pair of jigs, “The Cliffs of Mohr,” and the first of several unidentified fiddle tunes played that night. Hayes’ tone was sweet, his intonation accurate, and like many Irish fiddlers, he used the upper half of the bow the most.
Cahill was then joined by Bruce Molsky, 52, for a pair of tunes spanning the Atlantic: the Irish reel “Joe Bann’s” and the Appalachian breakdown “Billy in the Lowground.” As Hayes took the lead, Molsky demonstrated second fiddle playing by providing droning harmonies on the bass strings. In the second tune, Molsky alternated between unison and harmony playing.

Last in the first set was Alasdair Fraser, 52, from Clackmannan, Scotland. Fiddle-cello duets, Fraser explained afterwards, were popular in 18th-century Scotland, played some hornpipes with Hass. Scottish fiddling is closer in sound to classical violin than its Irish or Appalachian cousins—Fraser was the only fiddler to use vibrato, for example—and his style was well matched to Hass’s flawless cello.

The second set saw the only low point of the night, an original by Fraser called “Valley of the Moon,” which had a vacuous jam-band-type interlude between two more traditional-sounding tunes. The music went back uphill from there, though, when Fraser resumed his usual fare. He offered a set of reels that included “Jenny Dang the Weaver.” Molsky shined on the old-timey standard “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and Hayes and Molsky played Irish and Appalachian versions of the same tune, “Coleman’s March.”

On they went with the venerable old tunes, and the moments rolled away until the last chord of the full group’s encore, “Blackberry Blossom,” handed the audience back over to modern times.

—Glenn Weiser

See the article on the Metroland website 
Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2007 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  


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