Gig review: Fiddle 2014, Edinburgh

The one and only Casey Dreissen
The one and only Casey Dreissen
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As EDINBURGH’S annual Scots Fiddle Festival looks ahead to its landmark 20th edition next year, it seems an event in robustly good heart, having successfully weathered the move in 2011 from its original one-stop-shop at the Assembly Rooms.

Fiddle 2014 - The Queen’s Hall/Summerhall, Edinburgh

Current arrangements divide the packed three-day programme of concerts, ceilidhs, workshops and talks across different venues, but this year’s new conjunction between the Queen’s Hall and neighbouring multi-arts complex Summerhall proved eminently conducive.

Some canny member of the all-volunteer organising group has also been getting plugged into the local business community, with several nearby eateries offering up to 30 per cent off for ticket-holders and performers – and, in one case, a free coffee for any customer to play a tune.

The main concert programme was also exceptionally strong, both in calibre and diversity, with another innovation for 2014 being the addition of a third evening show last night, featuring the dynamite Shetland/Devon duo of fiddler Ross Couper and guitarist/flautist Tom Oakes, before Irish legend Frankie Gavin rounded things off in a style befitting the official (Guinness Book of Records accredited) Fastest Fiddle Player in the World.

Opening the festivities on Friday was Orkney Folk: The Fiddle Gathering, a 19-strong line-up – including a full dozen fiddlers – representing the latest evolution of a hugely fruitful home-grown showcase project originally premièred at the 2011 Orkney Folk Festival. While the exact personnel have varied somewhat over subsequent performances, a large core team – including most of fêted Orcadian band The Chair, plus all-gal quintet Fara – and a good deal of repertoire have remained consistent, tightening and smoothing the ensemble work to further enrich their sumptuous grand-scale sound, while sacrificing none of its thrilling firepower.

With non-fiddle instrumentation including accordion, moothie, banjo, mandolin, piano, guitar, bass and drums, and several excellent vocalists in the ranks, the set-list spotlighted individuals and smaller groupings as well as harnessing the full massed forces, in a handful of sparkling song arrangements together with tunes that ranged from elegantly orchestrated slow airs to full-throttle juggernaut jigs and reels.

At an event that foregrounds participation as much as performance, it was only fitting for Saturday’s concert to begin with a five young Edinburgh fiddlers, aged 11-18, who’d been tutored via the Scots Fiddle Festival Outreach Project, and delivered a spirited, impressively accomplished selection of markedly challenging tunes.

Next up was the one and only Casey Dreissen, a dazzlingly innovative US fiddler who’s worked with the likes of Béla Fleck, and whose music explores similarly progressive territory between bluegrass and jazz. In solo guise, he employed an array of effects pedals and live looping techniques, together with his formidable and multifarious handling of the fiddle itself, to layer up a series of extraordinary sonic creations – occasionally favouring virtuosity over musicality, but jaw-dropping nonetheless – including an unforgettable one-man transformation of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

In deft and thoroughly invigorating contrast, Dreissen’s wizardry was followed by that of top Scottish fiddler John McCusker, with Mike McGoldrick on flutes, whistles and uillean pipes, and guitarist Matheu Watson. Three of the finest tunesmiths in the business, they set about their business in wholly invigorating style, at once totally trad and superbly adventurous, with a couple of captivating ballads from McCusker’s missus, Irish singer Heidi Talbot, for yet more good measure.

Seen on 21/22.11.14