Fraser and Haas in a 2004 performance in Stirling, Scotland.

Scottish fiddler Alisdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas walked silently to the sanctuary-turned-stage of Brattleboro, Vermont’s First Baptist Church on Friday night. They led with a lament so delicate that the audience was hushed and on the edge of their seats. A particularly beautiful passage from Fraser slid naturally over to Haas, who put aside sonorous tones in favor of rhythmic bops that invited Fraser to hurl himself into the rousing “Calliope Meets Frank” reels. When they finished, the room erupted in cheers.

With that done, Fraser jokingly announced that he and Hass intended to spend the evening “rummaging around in the Scottish condition.” For the next several hours the duo put on a performance that left a standing-room crowd uncertain whether they should howl with delight or stand in silent awe before the display of precision and majesty they had just witnessed. Fraser evoked the 18th century Perthshire fiddler Niel Gow, who used to perform with his brother Donald, a cellist. As Fraser explained, the idea that fiddle should be paired with guitar or accordion is of recent vintage; Scottish musicians once blissfully ignored the lines between Baroque, classical, and folk traditions. In that spirit Fraser and Haas proceeded to obliterate boundaries. Is “Valley of the Moon” a Scottish reel or free-form jazz? Is “Alien Celidh” an experimental composition or a dance tune with a funny name? Who cares? The evening was, by any standard one wishes to apply, one of the most stunning musical performances imaginable.

Now in their ninth year of touring, the musical dialogue between Fraser’s fiddle and Haas’s cello has matured without losing a flicker of the fire that first drew them together. Fraser plays with the seeming effortlessness that typifies the great masters, while Haas attacks her cello with gusto; after all, she has a lot more instrumental space to cover. She also plays with great confidence; little nods on the stage signaled the respect between tutor and former pupil, but small sideway glances also conveyed her independence. Haas’s solo introduction to “Josephine’s Waltz,” the tune that opened the second set, was particularly soulful and commanding.

The level of musicianship was so high that it’s almost a sacrilege to single out specific moments, but two come to mind. “John MacDonald’s Reel” is a lovely tune on its own, but Fraser and Haas slow it down to wrench primal emotion from it—short notes echoing each other as if being etched carefully on a sheet of thin glass. Another highlight was “Trip to Pakistan,” which Fraser cracked “opens the door for Scottish belly dancing.” Well … maybe not, but Haas was suitably bohemian and Fraser played it with rakish bounce.

Haas and Fraser have recorded two albums on the Culburnie label, Fire & Grace (2004) and In the Moment (2007). Each is a masterpiece, though neither is as good as witnessing a live performance. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough—go out of your way to see any project in which Alisdair Fraser is involved. Watching Fraser play is like attending a performance of Cirque du Soleil; you see it happen but you still can’t believe that it’s possible. --LV



Sweet Spot
Fiddle First Music 001

As anyone who has ever picked up an instrument knows, taking it to the next level happens in bursts rather than steady increments. For years I’ve enjoyed Western Massachusetts-based fiddler Katherine First as she played at pub sessions and with a local Celtic rock band. Her debut solo album, however, took me from admiration to awe. She’s always been technically proficient, as befits someone who grew up playing classical music, but if you want to hear why Celtic musicians go to sessions to hone their craft, this album reveals the answer. Skilled Celtic musicians play tunes from inside (the tradition) out (to an audience), whereas mere technicians do the opposite. First’s sensitive cover of “The Island of the Woods” captures the lyrical elegance of Liz Carroll’s original, yet puts First’s own stamp on it in ways that embody deep familiarity with how tunes circulate in the folk community. In like fashion, her original material is at once timeless and innovative. You’ll also hear fresh takes on tunes penned by
Phil Cunningham, Dave Richardson, Maurice Lennon, and Peter Ostroushko. Katherine First has taken her music to the next level, and even greater things are yet to come.



The Maker’s Mark
Compass 7-4500-2

Tony McManus has long been a guitar-player’s guitarist, a musician who matches skill to an intuitive sense of how to go beyond the notes and shape a tune to the atmosphere at hand. On his latest recording he’s become a guitar- builder’s guitarist. It’s fifteen tracks and fifteen different guitars on an album appropriately subtitled The Dream Guitar Sessions. Although many of us would lie, cheat, and steal to lay hands on any one of these magnificent instruments McManus plays, each is particularly glorious in his capable hands. True to the theme McManus opts for a quiet album, its dreamy ambience enhanced by ringing harmonics and such a heavy emphasis on treble notes that the bass runs smack like a heavy right cross following a series of light jabs. There’s a bit of everything here—a cover of a Bothy Band favorite (“The Maids of Mitchelstown”), some Romanian music by way of Québec (“Parov’s Daichevo”), a touch of Spanish flair (“Chalareru”), a dash of Italian melody (“Si Dolce è’l Tormento”), loads of Scottish and Irish favorites, and a 12-string Québeçois finale (“Valse des Bélugas”). This is a perfect album for background music, close listening, or picker’s envy.--LV


SAGE (Minus Parsely, Rosemary, and Thyme)

Mpress Records MP4545-2

With seven previous recordings to her credit since 1996, Rachel Sage is a pop veteran. The cover of her latest depicts her in a gaudy gown and sporting a shade of red hair not found in nature. It’s emblematic of her quirkiness and New York City artistic temperament, but how one reacts to her music will depend on where the line is drawn between art and artifice. Sage claims Elvis Costello as an influence, but her piano-based confessional repertoire is more aptly compared to Nora Jones and Tori Amos, though she’s not as gifted as the former or as adventurous as the latter. When Sage airs out her voice she can be compelling, but when she swallows that air she’s just another generic pop singer. There is, for instance, a soulful edge to “Angel in My View” and gutsiness to “Wishbone.” These stand in contrast to tracks such as “Site-Seeing” and “Invincible” in which whispery tones are lost in a thick instrumental fog. Sage occasionally also crosses the border between dramatic and histrionic. Chandelier has a few luminous moments but too often, like the gown and hair, Sage tries too hard to be cool.