BLAS: GRAND FINALE (Empire Theatre, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 12 September 2009)

15 Sep 2009 in Festival, Highland, Music

SUE WILSON celebrates a colourful conclusion to another successful festival

Blazin' Fiddles

Blazin' Fiddles

WITH PROVISIONAL figures from Blas 2009 indicating ticket sales up by some 20 percent on last year, and at least half of the festival’s 43 concerts having sold out – no mean feat at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a recession – it seemed only fitting that its closing show drew a capacity crowd. There was also that extra buzz to the atmosphere, the anticipation and responsiveness of an audience happily primed by earlier events, which only a successful festival can generate.

A short set from the young Fèis participants who’ve plied this year’s Caledonian Canal Ceilidh Trail served as a tasty appetiser to the proceedings, comprising some strong instrumental medleys, in impressively sophisticated arrangements, on fiddle, whistle, bagpipes, accordion and guitar, and a beautifully delivered and harmonised Gaelic version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, translated by Eilidh Mackenzie.

Next up were the festival’s main Homecoming attraction, Cape Breton family outfit The Barra MacNeils, not only retracing the journey their emigrant Scottish forebears made a couple of centuries back, but making a return appearance at Blas after their debut visit in 2007.

With a melodic frontline featuring fiddle, flute, accordion and uilleann pipes, backed up with piano, bouzouki, guitar, bodhrán and bass, their sets of strathspeys, jigs and reels delivered plenty of densely-layered colour as well as the vigorous bounce and drive characteristic of Cape Breton music.

The tunes were interspersed with a diverse selection of vocal material, including a rousing a capella colliers’ anthem, ‘The Coal Town Road’, from the band’s home patch of Sydney Mines, featuring all six siblings in close harmony on the chorus, and a sparkling puirt-a-beul number subtly accompanied on accordion and tambourine, whose quality outweighed their sole lapse of taste in an ultra-slushy self-penned ballad, ‘Dance With Me Daily’.

More transatlantic connections were explored by the Canadian/Irish five-piece Tread, whose superbly accomplished mix of harp and fiddle tunes with dazzling stepdance displays affirmed them as one of this year’s top festival hits, while harpist Triona Marshall’s heartfelt thanks to everyone involved in their first UK visit showed that the audience’s fervent appreciation was fully reciprocated.

Highland heroes Blazin’ Fiddles supplied a suitably high-octane climax to the night, with the cunningly spliced tune styles and time-signatures among a preponderance of newer material demonstrating how their intricate ensemble sound continues to evolve in ambition and refinement, while their latest recruit Anna Massie, replacing Marc Clement on guitar, further expanded their palette with her nimble melodic picking.

There was also a surprise appearance by one of the band’s original co-founders, Duncan Chisholm, before all of the night’s musicians filed back on for a glorious last hurrah, firstly paying tribute to the recently deceased Cape Breton fiddle maestro Jerry Holland with a lush rendition of his instrumental anthem ‘My Cape Breton Home’, then setting about a final stramash of reels which won a prolonged standing ovation.

© Sue Wilson, 2009