Chris Stout Quintet And John McSherry’s First Light

23 May 2006 in Music

Eastgate Arts Centre, Peebles, and touring 2006

John McSherry

HIGHLAND AUDIENCES are in for a five-star treat when this Scottish Arts Council Tune-up series double bill heads north this week.

Shetland fiddler Chris Stout and Belfast-born uilleann piper John McSherry are leading musicians in their respective traditions and share a liking for playing music that remains true to those traditions while bearing a strong sense of spontaneity.

McSherry has even been likened to jazz legend John Coltrane for his improvisatory style, although it was Stout’s approach that leaned closer to jazz, particularly in the fiddler’s sparks-generating sparring with saxophonist Fraser Fifield.

Stout’s quintet has established an unmistakable sound of its own since its formation three years ago. The fiddle is naturally very much to the fore and Fifield’s edgy soprano playing adds to the melodic attack while the rhythm section of Catriona McKay (keyboard and harp), Malcolm Stitt (guitar) and Neil Harland (double) provides a warm, mobile accompaniment.

The sense of forward motion is palpable as Stout leads the group through the hairpin bends of ‘Scandanonymous’ and the slippery, jazz-inflected ‘Double Helix’.

There’s also a strong sense of place and atmosphere, particularly in the lovely Norwegian hymn ‘Jeg Ser Deg Sote Lam’, and Shetland’s flora, fauna, terrain and boats are frequently evoked.

For sheer artistry, though, Stout’s fiddle-harp duet with McKay, ‘Smugglers’, would be hard to beat. The pair take this set of traditional Shetland tunes, which originally appeared on their mighty ‘Laebrack’ CD, to fantastic heights, bringing out Stout’s full range of tones and stepping up the excitement levels as they negotiate the music’s at times craggy contours.

At First Light’s opening set was similarly varied in tempo. As with the piper’s recent album, ‘Tripswitch’, recorded with his colleague in this band, fiddler Donal O’Connor, there’s a considered approach at work here. Even at the fastest tempo, with fiddle and pipes very much in tandem, every melodic detail is clear, and slow airs such as the gorgeous ‘Both Ghe’ are as measured as they are emotionally affecting.

With bodhran player Francis McIlduff doubling on uilleann pipes, there’s also ample scope for ‘duelling chanters’ features, and the classic Finbar Furey set ‘Roy’s Hands’ found the group absolutely flying.

Just to reinforce their leaders’ spontaneous natures, the two groups united for an encore that was introduced as being a bit of ‘who’s following who?’ It sounded a deal more organised than that, but who knows what they might get up to later on the tour?

© Rob Adams, 2006