Feast of Fiddles began life as an idea for a one-off show, cooked up between melodeon player Hugh Crabtree and folk club impresario Mike Sanderson in 1993. The idea was simply to invite some of the UK’s best known fiddle players to perform with Hugh’s electric barn dance band, Whittaker’s Patent Remedy, and see what transpired. Having duly assembled for the “one-off” show in 1994, the musicians decided to make it an annual event, and are set to embark on a six-date tour in March 2003.
Leaving the fiddlers aside for a moment (!) the band comprises Crabtree, Dave Harding (bass), and John Underwood and Martin Vincent (guitars). The drum stool is occupied by none other than Dave Mattacks, known to followers of British folk-rock as “clobberer in residence” for both Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span during his long career.
The fiddle section (there are six – count ’em!) reads like a who’s who of the genre. They are Chris Leslie (Fairport), Peter Knight (Steeleye), Phil Beer (Show of Hands, Albion Band), Brian McNeill (Battlefield Band), Ian Cutler (Wicker Man soundtrack – yay!) and Tom Leary.
You’ll have already worked out that this is a live recording from the title, and the tracks were recorded over four consecutive nights in different venues. It’s the sound of a twenty-two legged folk monster – plugged in, rosined up and ready to rock! Well, it’s partly that anyway, as roughly half of the tracks on the CD feature the whole kit and caboodle in full tilt, playing tunes like “Haste to the Wedding,” “The Jig of Slurs,” “Morrison’s Jig” and “O’Neill’s March.” The rest of the CD is comprised of arrangements by the various fiddlers, which include a couple of songs in Beer’s tremendous solo “Blind Fiddler” and McNeill’s “The Devil’s Only Daughter.” Chris Leslie contributes a sublime “Once I Loved a Maiden Fair,” while Peter Knight demonstrates a hefty lump of both his classical technique and jazz improvisational skill across eight and a half minutes of “With Ivy in Mind.”
The latter could be viewed as a tad self indulgent (given that there are presumably ten other musicians on stage, scratching their backsides in the shadows), but the audience go suitably berserk at it’s conclusion, so who am I to argue? Leary’s showcase is the calm, meditative “Solway Dawn,” while Cutler goes straight for the jugular with an obvious but nonetheless blistering crowd-pleaser, “Orange Blossom Special.”
The big tune sets by les touts ensemble are all tremendous fun, though I do have a nagging reservation about Irish music performed by Brit folk-rock bands. The reason for that is that these bands are by definition, “rock,” whereas Irish traditional music works much better when it “swings.” (Compare these performances with those of Frankie Gavin, Martin Hayes or Kevin Burke before jumping on my head, please!) Dedicated fans of the genre, however, won’t give two hoots for my minor griping, and will lap this stuff up like Wadworth’s 6X at Cropredy!
The decision to release a live CD is a very welcome one, as this is definitely music to be heard in the flesh. The musicians are all of a very high calibre indeed, taking a break from their “day jobs” and communing on stage with a sense of enjoyment that’s palpable even when filtered via a disc. If I’d actually been at these gigs I’d have doubtless got more excited, and you might even have heard my voice bawling along the closing “Drunken Sailor!”
The CD comes with a four-track Bonus CD of material recorded at the Nettlebed Folk Club. “Horses” Brawl” is an epic version of a ceilidh classic which showcases Mr. Mattacks’ trademark tub-thumping. “Sally Free and Easy” is the only real gaffe on the collection, as a (wisely) un-credited vocalist over-emotes the fine Cyril Tawney song in an “amateur operatic society” style over a “moody” (read tedious) arrangement. At ten minutes and eleven seconds, it’s a quarter of an hour too long. Things perk up with the Fairport staples “Lark in the Morning/Foxhunters Jig,” before concluding with the audience sing-along of Paul Simon’s “Gone at Last.”
(self released, 2002)