ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Blazin’ Fiddles – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The planners at the Howard Assembly Room have been looking North this week, but, after Tuesday’s ice instruments, the Friday night concert with Blazin’ Fiddles stopped short of the Arctic Circle with four fiddlers from the Highlands and Islands backed by piano and guitar.

The music of Blazin’ Fiddles is difficult to define, impossible not to enjoy. The band has been compared to a folk equivalent of Led Zeppelin which seems a tad exaggerated, but there is nothing demure about their music-making. The band’s default position is exhilarating sets of strathspeys and reels (founder-member Bruce MacGregor refers to “scary strathspeys – all strathspeys are scary.”) delivered at breakneck speed with urgent accompaniment. But there is far more variety than that.

How far do you define this music as traditional? It’s part of the great tradition of Scots fiddle playing, but many of the tunes were recently composed, most  poignantly Doddie’s Dream in support of rugby star Doddie Weir and his motor neurone disease charity. Other numbers reflected the fiddle tradition on the other side of the Atlantic: one remembers Aly Bain and his association with so many American musicians. MacGregor’s Road to Skye had consciously country influences, but there were also two lovely waltzes with the spirit of Appalachia somewhere in the background.

When first formed over 20 years ago Blazin’ Fiddles’ intent was to reflect the different styles of fiddle playing in the regions of Scotland. It would take a more knowledgeable specialist reviewer to explain how these differences emerged in concert, but the varied tones of the four fiddlers contrasted attractively as well as uniting into a powerhouse unit, playing unison or one soaring above the other three or switching lead or dividing into pairs.

Each of the four fiddlers had a solo spot, interestingly concentrating more on lyric material. Jenna Reed from Shetland finished her three short pieces with a reel written by her teacher, but began much more gently and evocatively. Bruce MacGregor from Inverness came up with a lilting waltz of his own composition which strayed pleasingly into Jay Ungar territory. Kristan Harvey from Orkney put the ferocity of attack she was capable of to one side to meditate on The Rose of St Magnus. Only Rua Macmillan from Nairn chose three jaunty dances, finishing the other side of the Atlantic in Canada.

Pianist Angus Lyon and guitarist Anna Massie were a formidable engine room while also supplying subtler touches when required: several numbers passed through a melancholy or wistful stage before heading hotfoot for home. MacGregor was a personable and funny presenter, the other three fiddlers could not have been more amiable in talking about the music and the band’s enjoyment of playing live after a break of 620 days (which lasted till the previous night in Perth) was infectious. What was there not to like?  

Reviewed on November 19th 2021

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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