Students at Oxford don’t often get the chance to look north – the Scottish highlands and islands are somewhat out of reach when you have lectures to get to that afternoon. That’s alright, though – all that’s needed is to listen to the fiddle group Blazin’ Fiddles’ latest release North, and you’ll soon realise that with music like this being created everything is good and right with the world up above the border – and with Scottish fiddle music in particular.
Like lots of good things, Blazin’ Fiddles was not completely planned. Begun in 1998 in Inverness (check the map, look north, then look even further north), the group was meant to showcase a one – off display of the various highland and island fiddle styles. Over a decade later, and North shows us all how lucky we are that they continued to work together. Though there’s been changes in the lineup, under the steady leadership of Bruce MacGregor, Blazin’ Fiddles has managed to keep at its core the values of innovative, thriving tradition, performance excellence and sparky, honest fun. And this, to be truthful, is why I was originally drawn to this inclusive, warm-hearted group – they are just so much fun to listen to. You just can’t help but smile and tap your foot!
I first encountered Blazin’ Fiddles about eight years ago, when an uncle from the distant Black Isle gave me their first album Fire On (2002). From then on my love of this group just grew and grew; how could it not, with such an infectiously, unashamedly positive approach to music? This wasn’t like other plain, introspective music my friends were listening to; this group were proud to announce and celebrate their various styles and their zest for life. North epitomises this perfectly, displaying the best of the many musical styles Blazin’ Fiddles have to offer. From the romping, get-up-and-dance feel of the first track ‘Shetland Night’, where the listener is immediately thrown into the album with a joyous cascade of fiddle music, to the soft, slow, reflective tone of ‘Java’, a gentle air led by members Rua Macmillan and Kristan Harvey whilst the other members provide a thoughtful backing of ‘musical sequins’, the sheer diversity and range of Blazin’ Fiddles never fails to amaze.
As usual with Blazin’ Fiddles, North holds another whole layer of meaning and depth. When looked at closely, each track is picked carefully and is relevant to the group. The wonderfully named tune ‘The Bacon Allocation’ was written at the group’s annual fiddle festival and school ‘Blazin’ in Beauly’, where the naming rights of tunes written by the group were auctioned off. The beautifully gentle, delicate track ‘Gamekeeper’s’ was written by member Jenna Reid for friends who had finally moved into their dream home. It’s these personal touches that somehow come through in the intimacy and intensity of the music and make Blazin’ Fiddles, and North in particular, very special indeed.
The mix of old, traditional tunes and new writing also makes North a fascinating listen: the adaption of the old pipe tune ‘Troy’s Wedding’ is melded seamlessly with two other new tunes written and auctioned off at ‘Blazin’ in Beauly’. Much of the music is described as personal favourites of group members, or songs remembered as a child, giving the album a wonderfully close, family feel. It seems like it has been brought all the way down to Oxford from the remote Scottish islands just for you to savour and enjoy. The intricate interplay of the piano (Angus Lyon), guitar (Anna Massie) and fiddles (Jenna Reid, Kristan Harvey, Rua Macmillan and Bruce MacGregor) compels you to a second, then a third, listening, just to absorb the beautiful portrayal of the tunes selected. In particular, the stunning plucking medley overlaid by a single, singing violin at the opening of the track ‘Catch and Kiss’ is worthy of mention- and of several replays. North does not grow stale after the first run- on the contrary, it becomes more engrossing the more it is heard.
The accomplished cover art also seems to reflect the group and their ethic: four violin heads, scrolls angled to form a wave pattern not unlike the unbroken currents and breakers that lap at the Scottish islands where the music originates, suggesting simple, elegant, sophisticated music. It is in keeping with the look of their previous album covers, forming a pleasing continuum that shows North can live up to the group’s past work. North really is a joy to listen to – a stunning collection of music from the impressive range of styles and ability that is Blazin’ Fiddles. No, at Oxford we don’t often get the chance to look north: but with this latest release we can, for a short time, let the north come to us.