A Scottish Christmas
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
It is such a warm scene -- the snow flakes drift gently down as you approach the Scottish castle, a wonderful fortified house with welcoming lights blazing through some of the windows. You reach the door and suddenly there is Bonnie Rideout alone on a bare stage, playing an air. She is joined by pipers, the tune turns into a march and two Lord of the Rings-style characters throw off their cloaks and the dance begins. Her band joins in on Morrison's Jig, the last tune in the medley, and the live concert at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Michigan is underway.
Bonnie is a wonderful fiddler: compact, economical, focused and vibrant. Her enthusiasm for playing and her understanding of the music jump out at you. She draws together companions to present a variety of styles in a unified sound. Musicians such as the late Tony Cuffe on guitar from Scotland, Irish-American Jerry O'Sullivan on pipes and whistle and Celtic hammered dulcimer player Maggie Sansone perform alongside her; she draws their individual sounds and mingles them with her own Scottish approach. The result is a warm, lively performance as comfortable as a blazing fire in the hearth on a winter's night.
Tony Cuffe takes center stage with his singing on four tracks. He has a commanding tenor voice and an absorbing accent. Whether singing comparatively well-known songs such as Here We Come A-Wassailing, or lesser heard pieces such as Sae Will We Yet, he makes you feel that you are hearing a song for the first time, fresh and new, while making it sound familiar and comforting. As an accompanist, he is close to perfection, sympathetically supporting the melody with delicate fingerpicking, precise clean and crisp chords, intriguing progressions, and echoing or harmonizing with the melody line. It's fascinating how he can get such a big and varied sound from such a small instrument. There are times when his nylon-strung six-string sounds more like a piano, other times when it is like a bouzouki.
Working quietly throughout the performance is percussionist Paddy League, almost the unsung hero. Apart from his solo track, his presence is more felt than heard. Adept on both bodhrán and snare drum, he creates a dynamic rhythmic accompaniment for the melodies to thrive on. Yet he rarely stands out, being content to provide the driving rhythm on which the music depends.
He is partly assisted on many of the tracks by Maggie Sansone. Facing a near vertical instrument, she seems to have so much time in spite of the incredible number of strings being hammered -- she has such talent and so much obvious enjoyment as she weaves a harp-like effect on her dulcimer, at times in a most animated fashion. For the most part, the arrangements include her playing in combination with other instruments, allowing the beauty of its percussive attributes to shine along with its melodic qualities. (There is no need to complain of the resonating after-sound drone of dulcimers here as Sansone uses the instrument to its fullest effect).
Few object to the drone of uilleann pipes and there is no reason to fault Jerry O'Sullivan's contributions -- his whistle playing is equally strong. Whether performing Christmas tunes or traditional Irish fare, his approach lifts tunes to new heights. His sense of drive in the melodies, coupled with his dynamic ornamentation, is the perfect foil for Rideout's fiddling - two distinctive instruments complementing each other.
Although not a great fan of highland pipes, I am drawn to the City of Washington Pipe and Drum Band if only for its sheer talent. The high point of their set, however, is the 'synchronized' drumming segment which is almost impossible to believe without seeing. Two dancers also take the stage frequently, demonstrating a variety of stepping styles from Scotland and Ireland.
There is a good mix of songs and tunes associated with Christmas and winter, along with appropriate traditional tunes. At more than hour and a quarter, it is long, but the combinations presented mean attention rarely drifts. At times, Bonnie or Tony stand alone, at times the stage is filled with musicians and dancers. The camera work draws the viewer in without distracting from the music. (And for once at a concert, the cameramen are conspicuous by their near-absence -- they are barely noticed shadows.) The DVD is well produced, creating strong impressions both musically and visually, from the opening winter setting to the actual stage show: the pipers in full regalia; the dancers twirling across the stage; the musicians in dark clothing, some with tartan; no need for pyrotechnics, yet still a feast for the eyes. And musically, almost everything is perfectly in place. There are parallel tracks on the disk -- Bonnie Rideout discusses touring and the development of the show on one; the musicians talk about their instruments on another; individual music tracks can be selected, and so on. Another click gives computers access to further information on the Internet.
A Scottish Christmas is similar to Rideout's 1995 CD of the same name; some of the tracks are the same, but the interpretations are different in the hands of the musicians who perform here.
If there is cause for complaint, then it might lie with one medley where one guitar string on one song is played slightly out of tune. But in spite of that, its inclusion is understandable -- it's so well performed and part of a superb set that it simply could not be left out. And Cuffe more than makes up for that with the surprise ending to the show -- he was not just a talented musician, but also an excellent showman -- he will be greatly missed.