This month Inverness based Blazin’ Fiddles unleash their seventh studio album, North, on an eager and ever-growing audience. Their success has been impressive by any standards, but when you bear in mind the band’s origins, it’s quite remarkable. In 1998, as part of the Year of Highland Culture, Bruce MacGregor (Cliar, The Unusual Suspects) formed Blazin’ Fiddles. The idea was to create a band for a one-off tour that would showcase the different fiddle styles of the Highlands and Islands. The success of the shows led to more gigs and a debut album, Fire On! in 2002. Since then the band have undergone a few personnel changes; becoming something of a northern fiddle collective under Bruce MacGregor’s astute leadership. They’ve released a string of albums to huge critical acclaim, and toured extensively with a live show that can set any venue alight. There’s also the annual mini-festival / fiddle school in the gorgeous highland village of Beauly – Blazin’ in Beauly.
Past members include Catriona MacDonald, Duncan Chisholm, Allan Henderson and Iain MacFarlane; and the current line up retains a distinctly northern flavour, with Bruce MacGregor from Inverness and Rua Macmillan from Nairn representing the Highlands and the North-East, while Kristan Harvey from Orkney and Jenna Reid from Shetland bring the sounds of the Northern Isles. Every good fiddler deserves a fine accompaniment, of course, and Blazin’ Fiddles have the very best in the shape of Anna Massie on guitar (and a recently acquired fiddle!) and Angus Lyon on piano. With ‘North’ in the running for Album of the Year at this year’s Scots Trad Music Awards where they previously won Best Live Act in 2004 and Folk Band of the Year in 2013, there’s a lot to live up to; naturally, North achieves exactly this, and in fine style.
One of the main reasons for the success Blazin’ Fiddles have enjoyed is the lively, positive approach they take to the music, and North opens in typical euphoric style with a cascade of fiddles in Shetland Night. The set sails along beautifully with a driving piano and guitar combination towards a delightful Allan Kelly melody. There’s more to the band than soaring reels, though, and the core set up of four fiddles with guitar and piano accompaniment has always served them well for the more gentle offerings.
For instance, there’s an appealing guitar/piano introduction to Jenna Reid’s classically influenced melody in celebration of a new home, Gamekeeper’s. With the main theme taken up in a round by all four fiddles, it’s a soothing and glorious effect underpinned perfectly by Angus Lyon’s piano. Then there’s the beautiful slow air Taigh Sia. The haunting melody comes across like a love story – tender with a hint of pathos among the expertly harmonising fiddles. In the sleepy and seductive Java (William Marshall’s Mrs. Major L. Stewart Of The Island Of Java) Rua and Kirstan’s fiddle styles shine clearest, and we’re taken back to that original concept of showcasing regional styles in a very literal sense, with each player, in turn, bringing their own particular style to the melody, their own flourishes and expression.
Combining those regional styles in one, soul-stirring, joyful union is all part of what makes every Blazin’ Fiddles album such a fascinating adventure, and in Arran Ceilidh there’s another trio of tunes that does just that. A light, frothy opening leads to a toe-tapping conclusion that merits the promise held in the title. Their sense of fun is never far from the surface either, with the opening tune in this set (Anna Massie’s The Bacon Allocation) being one of a few on the album written at Blazin’ In Beauly, where the naming rights were put up for auction. In the delightful dance set, Garfield’s, there’s a polka with a hint of Parisian swing in Anna’s guitar and Phil Cunningham’s marvellous slip jig Gingerhogs No. 2 to close. Catch and Kiss is a trio of traditional tunes where the band displays even more versatility, using fiddle for both melody and accompaniment. Anna takes up her fiddle to join the others in a set that takes the chase to a gentle and infectious canter across the fields.
With any Blazin’ Fiddles offering, of course, it’s the lively, pulse quickening sets that are the most memorable and seem to hold most appeal. Listening to them on public transport (I’ve learned) must be the musical equivalent of reading Terry Pratchett – you just can’t help but smile, nod your head in appreciation or shake it in wonder at the craft that’s gone into what you’re enjoying. Of course, with Blazin’ Fiddles there’s the added inability to keep your feet still. That feeling is epitomized in the joyful Braehead Cottage It’s a truly infectious reel where the fiddles weave around each other in a breathless excitement, just as the dancers at any Blazin’ Fiddles gig would. Pat the Budgie is the set that got BBC Scotland’s Hogmanay show off to such a flying start last year, and it’s a welcome addition to the album. In this rendition, Angus Lyon’s piano has an even stronger Irish accent!
Blazin’ Fiddles manage to combine everything there is to enjoy in Scottish fiddle music. Gently soothing melodies and the stirring, glorious sound of multiple fiddles in harmony. There are fascinating and wonderful contemporary arrangements of traditional fiddle and pipe tunes from Scotland and beyond. Most of all, though, there’s that infectious, enlivening and irresistible euphoria that comes about from a passion for the music and a longing to share it. The energy, skill and enthusiasm that abounds in North is so much a part of every recording and every live performance, you begin to wonder whether a dance floor should be compulsory whenever Blazin’ Fiddles take to the stage. It should certainly become required listening on public transport – just imagine all those happy faces on the way to work in the morning!
Review by: Neil McFadyen
North is released 30th November 2015 via Blazin’ Fiddle Records
21st November – STRONTIAN – Sunart Centre
23rd November – YORK – NCEM
29th November – EDINBURGH – St Andrew’s Day (Edinburgh’s Christmas)
30th January – Glasgow, Celtic Connections – ABC