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Fiddle with an Attitude

A Review of Fiddler Ashley MacIsaac in Concert, May 2003

by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio

“Play us something from home,” shouted a keyed up fan from the back of the audience.
“I came from home,” growled the soloist. “Our house burnt to the ground. I’ll play something from there, if you want to get schnitty.”

Ashley Mac Isaac isn’t known for being particularly tactful.

After hearing the request for songs from his native, Cape Breton, he said, “Most of the music I played (as a child) was for funerals. So I’ll play something up-tempo like that. This next tune is called ‘My Home.’ ” He played a standard Cape Breton song with a rock band backup.

Once the song was finished, he quickly shot his characteristic and expected middle-finger gesture at the person who had made the request. Then he continued to create some of the most remarkable fiddle music I’ve ever heard! Like many others in the audience, I was confused and awkwardly amused by his startling polarity!

Ashley’s not a “pretty boy” like many other pop stars and teen icons. No sparkling jumpsuits or nose jobs here. He wears a ball cap, sometimes hidden by the hood of his sweater, baggy jeans and big rings. His face is scruffy and his voice is rough, but he can sure fiddle.

This performer doesn’t go out of his way to make eye contact and occasionally turned away from the audience during his solos, not unlike Miles Davis’ notorious performances. Come to think of it, I think he was even wearing sunglasses in this dark venue! But again, his remarkable fiddling more than made up for his detached stage presence.

Ashley won't make the audience feel warm and fuzzy inside with stock compliments like, “This town’s the best town I’ve ever played in.” In fact, this east-coaster poked fun at BC politics and called attention to the fact that “such a lively crowd” hardly budged from their seats during his high-energy concert opening. I tended to agree with him on that point because his fiddling was certainly deserving of some audience participation.

His fiddling. My, oh my, has Ashley mastered his instrument with marvelous innovation. Before the concert I expected his backward violin hold and unconventional technique would have gotten in the way of my appreciation of him as a violinist, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. His musicality, phrasing, and sense of style were phenomenal. He was up and down the neck of his instrument with such fluency as to lead a non-player to think it was incredibly easy.

There’s one word to describe Ashley MacIsaac’s playing: INTENSE. From lilting jigs to hard rock with fiddle solos, his intensity was electrifying. He’s not leaping around the stage, “hobbling and wobbling,” as he put it, but he does give an electrifying, intense show. (We eventually did talk him into step-dancing for us.)

Though his sound is rough and harsh, the subtle nuances like grace notes and other embellishments make his interpretation of traditional Celtic songs priceless. I was captured by his aggressive yet nimble bowing and laughed each time another few stands of hair came loose from his bow. He had to stop a few times to yank out the stray hairs from his balding instrument, during which he would babble on about everyday things.

He explained in great detail about his dinner earlier that night at a Chinese restaurant. “I had the ‘Lovers for Two Dinner.’ I was pretty full by the end of it. I don’t know what that has to with the next song.” Neither did we.

Initially I was nervous that he's go too far with the edgy remarks, but I grew to appreciate his straightforward, honest approach to talking to the audience. His candid and direct remarks helped the audience warm up to him as a person, not just a pop star. He threw in musical gags like a violin wolf whistle and the chorus from La Cucharacha. It must be a Cape Breton thing: all the players I’ve seen from the island are “what you see is what you get” sort of people.

“I started playing fiddle when I was eight years old,” he said at the end of the show. “I’m 28. I’ve played for 20 years. That’s a good two-thirds of my life. I’ll be darn near one hundred by the time I’ve lived as much as I’ve played.”

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