Donna Bird and Cat Eldridge co-wrote this review.
Maine-dwellers will remember May 2005 as the month of ceaseless rain, wind and unseasonably cold temperatures. The weather was at its worst on the weekends. Most of us were house-bound against our wills. A Sunday evening concert featuring Aly Bain and Ale Möller provided one of the month’s best diversions. As Jack Merry said in his review of Fully Rigged, ‘Aly Bain and Ale Möller’s Fully Rigged blends the very, very best of Nordic and Scottish fiddle music together. Aly Bain (Boys of the Lough) and Ale Möller (Frifot) are two of the most splendid fiddlers one can hope to hear, and true gentlemen to boot. It’s been me good luck to hear both of them in concert – if you get a chance to see either one of them perform, don’t pass it up!’ So we didn’t.
The Center for Cultural Exchange s a small, intimate venue located on a busy intersection in downtown Portland. When we arrived just after 7:00 for a 7:30 show, the house was already nearly full. Most of the members of the audience were older folks, which was also true when we saw Ale Möller as part of Frifot a few years ago. (That audience was mostly of Swedish ancestry, but this was a more general audience.) We didn’t see too many people from the dance crowd that comes to many other CCE concerts – but then Aly and Ale don’t exactly play dance tunes. (Neither does Frifot.) They had no opening act, and arrived on stage right on time, a rare pleasure at a venue which more often than not runs late at getting a concert going!
Ale let us know that it was Aly’s birthday. Spontaneously, the crowd sang ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ which of course made Aly blush. He admitted that he is of an age where birthdays are not about celebrating, but rather about reflecting on the mistakes you’ve made in your life. He kept complaining about how warm it was in the room, although in the back where we were sitting it felt like we were outside in the 40-degree rainy night, fitting given the Shetland and Nordic tunes they were playing! As Jack noted regarding their only joint recording to date, ‘Fully Rigged makes no pretension of being a ‘live’ album, but rather a carefully crafted affair that makes the best use of recording technology. It’s truly nice to see that an album that’s not just another ‘Nordic thrash folk’ album where the volume of noise disguises the lack of musical talent.’ We felt that live they were even better than they were on Fully Rigged. Unlike Frifot, theirs is a quieter, more simple sound.
Bain and Möller played a solid first set that lasted for just over an hour before taking a break. Many of the tunes would be familiar to anyone who has listened to Fully Rigged as often as we have; however, the live versions had a couple of noteworthy differences. The performers provided stories about the origins of the songs before playing them. They also played them at a tempo considerably more rapid than the arrangements on the album, making for an interesting, if slightly disorienting, experience.
As for the tunes they played, we’ll single out ‘Da Day Dawn’ which is a New Year’s welcoming piece. They played damn near everything else off Fully Rigged as far as we could tell for neither of us took notes because we wanted to enjoy the concert. Rest assured that if you like traditional tunes, you’ll love every bit of their playing! The key here is that Bain and Möller are playing the music of two traditions, Scottish and Nordic, in a way that respects both traditions. It is not unusual to hear fine Celtic traditional and traditional-sounding music being played, nor is it uncommon to hear exceptionally well-crafted Nordic music either. What is extremely rare is hearing two performers play both traditions in the same concert. Doing so allows the listener to see the common roots of both traditions.
Bain had a collection of fiddles at hand, some of which he had apparently borrowed from people in the audience (we recognized local fiddlers in the crowd including Tom Wilsbach who has played with several contradance bands including Crooked Stovepipe). Of course, because of the extremely damp weather, he had to keep tuning the strings. Möller had all his toys with him: mandola, cow’s horn, willow flute and harmonica. He entertained us with a story about the cow’s horn that would have offended any vegetarians in the audience. Hearing him play these instruments was particularly thrilling because he plays all of them in his work with Frifot, one of our favorite bands to listen to do in the winter!
A superb concert on a night where good music was very much appreciated by us.
A special thanks to Rob Simonds of Northside for making possible this tour. Rob’s the main agent for most of the wonderful Nordic performers one hears these days in North America.