Celebrating their 15th anniversary, 2013 saw Blazin’ Fiddles record their sixth album, appropriately enough called Six, which is due for relase next week. To cap a great year for the band, Blazin Fiddles were in Aberdeen in early September to pick up the coveted Folk Band Of The Year Award at this year’s MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards. I was intrigued to read a report that Bruce MacGregor, Blazin’ Fiddles founding father, picked up the awards and professed to be both delighted and surprised. The delight was at least in part due to the fortunate timing as Blazin’ Fiddles entered the final straight before the release of Six. The surprise was not any outbreak of unnecessary modesty after 15 years, but the reminder that Blazin’ Fiddles never set out to be a band in the first place. The original concept was simply a celebration of different fiddle styles as a one off to mark the Year Of Highland Culture in 1988. But then good ideas have a way of taking hold.
Blaziin’ Fiddles have proved to be not simply a good idea, but also one with staying power. The band has featured some extraordinary talent, but also been able to survive significant line up changes with no perceived reduction of firepower. Of course that titular number also refers to what is billed as the reinvigorated six-strong line up, still featuring some of the finest musical talent of the Highlands and Islands. Yet in their history they released The Magnificent Seven, unsurprisingly as a seven piece. Down the years, Duncan Chisholm, also a founder of Wolfstone, Aiden O’Rourke, a man of many talents, far too numerous to list and Catriona MacDonald, who has a Celtic Connections commission to bring together the finest female fiddlers, resulting in the Grammy nominated String Sisters on her CV, have all come and gone, but Blazin’ Fiddles blaze on.
The longevity of the ‘project’ has always been about the quality of the players and the continuity is maintained by a recruitment policy that set its sights high, looking to add only the best and most distinctive instrumental voices within the wider Scottish scene. The two newest members are Anna Massie and Jenna Reid.
Anna Massie is primarily recognised as a very fine guitarist, but is also skilled with mandolin, banjo and indeed fiddle. Anna’s virtuosity is obvious and she was recognised as the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Of The Year Award back in 2003. Since then she has formed a musical partnership with Mairearad Green that has lasted 10 years. The pair both grew up in the Highlands with mandolin playing fathers, which perhaps explains an intuitive bond, the evidence of which can be found on two critically acclaimed albums. Anna is also a mainstay of Bella Hardy’s band. Although it’s mostly her guitar playing she’s noted for, she also contributes fiddle to two of the tracks on Six.
Jenna meanwhile hails from Shetland and her own musical upbringing started with piano lessons. But with two siblings playing the fiddle, Jenna was tempted and took lessons with the late Dr Tom Anderson MBE and then Willie Hunter, all while still in primary school. On finishing her schooling the natural move was to study traditional music at the former RSAMD, now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which equally naturally led Jenna to joining Dochas and Deaf Shepherd. With three albums in her own name Jenna also continues to play with her sister Bethany, as well as contributing to many other bands and also, notably, the Transatlantic Sessions.
The talented new recruits are of course joining an extremely gifted quartet whose accomplishments are quite staggering. Be it tuition, the recording of others, with three of them running studios, or staging festivals – not to mention various bands and collaborations, commissions a veritable musical feast in fact – you wonder how they fit it all in.
If Bruce MacGregor, who hails from Inverness is the founding father, then Allan Henderson can also claim to have been there from the start. In his own words, “Bruce MacGregor asked me onboard for a week long tour of the Highlands, and, fifteen years later, I’m still here.” Both acknowledge their own inspirational teachers and Bruce learnt with Donald Riddell CBE, while Allan credits Aonghas Grant. Both seem to have gained a hot-wired connection to the tradition, which has sparked an adventurous, creative appetite. Allan sums it up saying “Aonghas’ teaching focused on what made the music tick rather than the technical nuts and bolts, and I’m delighted to say that, even in his eighty-third year, he is still amazing me with tunes and stories that I have never heard before.”
With Allan hailing from Mallaig, Iain McFarlane is by Highlands standards, from just down the road in Glenfinnan. Iain grew up with both the fiddle and pipe traditions, first picking up the bow under the watchful eye of his father Charlie and then later, like Bruce, with Donald Riddle CBE. Since his teens Iain has played with Boys of the Lough, Phil Cunningham and Iain MacDonald, amongst other as well writing for film, theatre TV and radio. He is also an established teacher at The National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton. Angus Lyon meanwhile has been playing accordion since the age of five and gigging since 14, starting with Charlie Todd’s Cameronian Ceilidh Band for 3 years, which he describes as, “A proper musical apprenticeship!” It’s his piano that features with Blazin’ Fiddles, however, given a twist to the string driven sound.
The piano adds a nice dramatic tone from the start, with the opening tune set none the less letting fly with a flurry of fiddles. The Lads Like Beer, sees an original tune from Jenna sandwiched between a reel from the Gateshead residing but Dundee born James Hill, that gives the piece its title and a tune from Gideon Stove or as he was known, ‘the Lerwick violinist’, cementing the Shetland connection. It’s a playful start with a nice change of mood and pace in the middle, with a percussive thump and a sudden elegiac break down building back to an ecstatic climax.
The Joe Peters set takes its name form the person who taught the last of the three tunes to Iain and shifts the instrumental focus to feature Anna’s guitar picking out the opening melody. This set has Breton origins and Blazin’Fiddles love to shift the international focus too, with Mama, Come Let’s Dance based on a lovely Scandinavian influenced waltz from Jerry Holland. It’s married to a tune that celebrates the joys of taking the Uisge-Beatha (Whisky) au naturel, that is without the need for water. The Diplodocus then turns its gaze Westward first across the Irish Sea, before crossing the Atlantic for a joyous Quebecois reel finale, originally composed for the Dione quintuplets with a part for each.
The Shoemaker set, like the opener features Anna’s fiddle and with Jenna, the pair lead a set of relaxed, stately marches. Featuring a highly emotive contribution from Angus, the piece has an almost classical feel. The CD’s sleeve notes suggest that Far O’er Struy is music to soundtrack a walk, a stroll with a pick up of the pace to end. If that’s so, then the reels of The Colgrave Sound are an exhilarating gallop. By contrast The Marquis Of Huntly’s Snuff Mill once again slows the pace, with Angus and Bruce apparently sitting down to deliver a lovely Scottish air composed by William Marshall.
Lady Dorothea is built around a 6/8 time wedding March, with two pipe reels and starts to build the pace back up. Bulgarian, taken from the American band Reeltime, then explodes out of the blocks, with an eastern flavour. It’s tremendous fun as is the concluding Paddy’s tune set based around a composition from the late Roddy McCourt, which provides a fitting rhythmically complex flurry of a finale.
The one person whose individual achievements I haven’t documented above is Bruce MacGregor. He is one of Scotlands most celebrated musicians with his own enviable track record of commissions, compositions, recordings, and teaching. The founder of the band is also the patriarch of the Blazin’ In Beauty school of fiddle playing, which now has an international reach and Northern Roots, a music festival at the award nominated adventure farm he now runs with Yvonne Murray.
Arguably Blazin’ Fiddles and the incredible combination of musical talent and acquired knowledge and the continuation of the various strands of the Scottish fiddle tradition is the crowning glory. Individually the players are all brilliant, but together they are something even more than that and Six is indeed glorious stuff. As disarming as his comments abut the award were, he should rightly be proud of what Blazin’ Fiddles have achieved, their legacy will doubtless last for generations to come.
Review by: Simon Holland
Six is released on Blazin’ Records on 3 Feb 2014
Behind the Scenes
31 Jan – Celtic Connections 2014
15 Feb – Cheltenham Folk Festival
07 Mar – Buccleuch Centre – Langholm
10 Mar – The Sage – Gateshead
11 Mar – Venue Cymru – Llandudno
12 Mar – Dukes Theatre – Lancaster
14 Mar – Eden Court – Inverness
18 Mar – The Lemon Tree – Aberdeen