The Brewery Arts Centre is just what its name suggests, a converted brewery. On Good Friday evening a fairly typical looking folk audience is filling the old malt room to near capacity. But they’re waiting for anything but a typical folk band. Ok, having 11 musicians on stage isn’t too unusual in these days of Bellowhead, but Feast of Fiddles has been doing this for 22 years with the twist that at least 6 of the 11 take solo spots and, oh yes, at least 6 of them play fiddles. As for the remaining 5, adding electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums to the lineup makes the clear statement that this is a folk rock outfit. Member #11, Hugh Crabtree on melodeon, provides the keystone that holds the entire structure in place.
Down go the houselights and the evening begins with a familiar tune, but hang on, familiar it may be but this is no morris tune, surely this is the theme from Mission Impossible? Feast of Fiddles being atypical again, they’ve never been afraid to hop across genres in search of a tune that will grab an audience’s attention. But don’t let that attention drift or you’ll miss the almost imperceptible join to the next piece. It might be a traditional tune but, tonight, it’s a composition by keyboard player, Alan Whetton, very much a traditional sounding jig, Statement of Intent. The opening of a Feast of Fiddles gig is always a full on ensemble piece with the trademark back line giving it a solid folk rock foundation, the melodeon punching out bursts of the melody and the fiddles in an arrangement providing melody, harmonics and pretty much anything else that a multi-instrument string section can provide.
The band structures the first half of the gig to feature each of the fiddle players in turn. First up is Tom Leary with his waltz-time composition Still Shadow. Tom takes the lead with the full band still involved, albeit with the rock part of folk rock taking a back seat. This allows Tom’s fiddle and Hugh’s melodeon to feature in front of an increasingly layered string arrangement. In contrast, Garry Blakeley then quietens and slows the pace further, soloing on three of his tunes backed just by drums, bass and keyboards. Garry’s home is Hastings and his tunes all take inspiration from the town, evoking the streets, the pubs, the fishing boats.
Whilst the band is primarily instrumental, songs are very much part of the repertoire, Chris Leslie providing the first of the evening with his tale of shady dealing in fiddles made by Benjamin Banks in 18th century Salisbury. Later in the set come songs from Peter Knight, From a Lullaby Kiss, and Chris and Hugh harmonize on another Alan Whetton composition, Butterfly’s Wing. Alan is the band’s most recent recruit joining in 2012. His musical background is more big band than folk band and, while keyboards are his primary contribution, he’s also brought soprano, alto and tenor sax into the lineup adding yet more diversity to arrangements. As the jig he composed for the opening number showed, though, he’s discovering folk roots that maybe he didn’t realize he had.
Brian McNeill’s featured contribution made use of material he composed during a recent collaborative project in his home town of Falkirk, The Falkirk Music Pot. Among the array of music that emerged is The Kelpies Suite for orchestra, choir and traditional musicians, inspired by the astounding horse head sculptures that now dominate The Helix activity park north of the town. Brian extracted a piece, We Toss Our Manes And Wait, to put in a set that also included Crossing The Minch, a tune harking back to his Battlefield Band days. It’s always a delight to experience Brian’s fiddle virtuosity and the entire set of 5 tunes were a delight.
For his contribution to the first half, Ian Cutler chose a Jay Unger tune, Wizard’s Walk. Essentially a reel, the featured fiddle part has strong baroque influences, but backing from the guitar of Martin Vincent, Dave Harding’s bass and Dave Mattacks on drums, converted it to classic folk rock. The arrangement also gave Alan his first opportunity to feature the soprano sax. It would be a brave troupe who tried out the matching dance using this arrangement.
Dance tunes also close the first half, a set of 6 traditional jigs with all the fiddles giving them volume and energy, setting the scene for the full band pieces that form the second half of the gig. That begins with another genre hopping foray, who but Feast of Fiddles would have thought of combining The March of The Royal Siamese Children from The King and I with Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir? But it works and kicks off a rousing final hour that quickly returns to traditional and traditional style material with a pipe march, Lochanside, re-arranged for fiddles. This begins with solo fiddle from Ian, building to 3, 4 and eventually all 6 fiddles brewing up a storm and leading into the sharp contrast of an Eastern European, gypsy influenced Tom Leary piece, Road to Maribor. Next up is a traditional French dance tune, Le Branle des Chevaux or, more familiarly in English, Horse’s Brawl. Whilst the fiddles carry repetitions of the tune, the piece develops through Dave Mattack’s drumming building in volume and complexity. Dave’s drumming is a standout feature of all Feast of Fiddles work but this piece shows why he can claim his place amongst the greatest of folk rock drummers.
By this point we’ve parts of the audience dancing in the aisles and there’s plenty in the rest of the set to keep them on their feet. But the upbeat is interspersed with vocals that give band and audience some respite. Brian takes vocal and swaps fiddle for mandocello on Copenhagen, a tale of the 1928 disappearance with all hands of a sailing ship. It has a chorus, encouraging the audience to find its voice and other opportunities for singing come with Smugglers from Hugh and Geronimo’s Cadillac from Chris. With both singing and dancing, the gig has generated a party atmosphere, inevitably finishing to a standing ovation.
Having survived an appearance on Midsummer Murders, Hugh Crabtree must feel that putting together the annual Feast of Fiddles tour is a walk in the park. So, he’s already promised that they’ll be back next Spring, watch out for them appearing near you, you won’t be disappointed.
Review by: Johnny Whalley