MacIsaac fiddles around with traditional music

July 04, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Ashley MacIsaac is probably the least traditional traditional fiddler you'll ever hear.

Cue up "Beaton's Delight," the first track from MacIsaac's album "Hi, How Are You Today," and what you'll hear if you focus on the fiddle playing is a feisty strathspey, a Celtic dance tune like hundreds that were played in Scotland 200 years ago. A genuinely folkloric performance, in other words. Focus on the rest of the track, though, and behind that fiddle part you'll hear rock-oriented bass and drums, backward guitar and editing tricks that would be totally at home on a techno single. Nor does it end there. "Sleepy Maggie" grounds MacIsaac's fiddle and Mary Jane Lamond's old-style Celtic vocal in a throbbing, bass-driven club groove, while "The Devil in the Kitchen," with its feedback guitar and reckless drumming, comes on like the Chieftains jamming with Green Day.

But there are totally traditional performances on the album as well, as with the "Spoonboy" medley, which finds MacIsaac running through a half-dozen fiddle tunes while Gerry Deveau plays spoons behind him. Given the gap between old and new on his album, doesn't MacIsaac worry about leaving his listeners utterly confused?

"Well, in one sense, because it might bring people through different sorts of ups and downs," he says, over the phone from a cabin aboard the QE2. "But in reality, from my end of the gig, I'm basically just playing fiddle tunes throughout the whole thing.

"There are all different arrangements. There's 'The Devil in the Kitchen,' which is more of a hardy, punk-type tune, then there are other things which are more of a rock band-type tune. I have this band who play those arrangements, and I'm just out there, basically plowing through the fiddle tunes and being the frontman.

"So you get people reacting differently all the time. But I don't have that much of a province to really cover except for being a fiddler from Cape Breton."

MacIsaac's roots really are his secret weapon. Cape Breton in Nova Scotia is the only true Celtic community in North America, and one where the old ways are still maintained, from speaking Creigaelic to playing fiddle tunes in the old style.

"Now, traditional music in Scotland and Ireland and everywhere else is considered a root form," he says. "But Cape Breton is also a root form. It's just one that people haven't particularly sought until only the last 10 years. It wasn't very exposed to anywhere else. Just people out in the woods playing the fiddle."

That isolation is what helped the music maintain its genuinely folksy spirit. "There's less aristocracy in it all," says MacIsaac. "There was much more people playing for the sake of having a party, and having a ceili, and having a drink, rather than having to put on fancy dresses and go on the QE2. And that, I think, has probably kept a real root feel in the music.

"When the fiddlers play, the majority of the fiddlers have a really strong feel of their instrument. It's about that, rather than it being tonally correct."

Maybe that's why MacIsaac is as at home with musical variety as he is with a wide range of outfits. "Over the course of the last three years, people in Canada have seen me go from being the postal man to wearing my kilt, to right now being on the QE2 with American flag Jo Boxers, because I'm watching the 'Little Shop of Horrors,'" he says.

"I mean, I'm 21 years old. I go to the Salvation Army and buy a lot of different clothes. So if there's young people there, I may end up being alternative fiddler on the night. But if I'm doing a show in a theater, with 50- and 60-year-olds sitting there watching me -- or, for that matter, a pile of QE2 passengers -- I'm probably going to put on my shirt and tie, and maybe even a tux coat."

Ashley MacIsaac

When: Sunday, 7 p.m., opening for the Chieftains

Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion

Tickets: $22.50 pavilion seating; $12 lawn

Call: (410) 481-7328

Sundial: To hear excerpts from Ashley MacIsaac's new release, "Hi, How Are You Today," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6221. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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