Cantrip in Ashfield a Late Summer treat


Ashfield Community Hall

September 24, 2010

A recent performance by the (mostly) Scottish trio Cantrip was a reminder that music doesn’t have to be pretentious to be great craic. Everything about the concert felt homespun. First, it was held in the intimate setting of the Ashfield Community Hall. Ashfield, for those who don’t know it (which is most people) is what is called in Western Massachusetts a “hill town”—a close-knit place of just over a thousand souls nestled in the Berkshire foothills. The Community Hall is one of those white clapboard buildings with press-tin walls that was once a church and has since been dozens of other things. About 60 people settled in on a glorious fall evening of soft dappled light, the first burst of autumn color, and enough warmth to have us all speculating whether it was early fall or the last gasp of summer. (Disputing which day is summer’s last is a New England sport in which we engage right through to November 1.)

The intimate setting meant that the band didn’t need to crank up the amps. If you can’t imagine how the bagpipes can be intimate, you’ve not heard them in the hands of Cantrip’s front man, Dan Houghton. Houghton now resides in southern Vermont, thus a reuniting with band mate and long time friend Jon Bews added to the evening’s festivities and the two kept things basic as their regular guitarist Zan McLeod couldn’t make the trip and they were working with a guest performer.

Houghton and Bews are ice and fire. Houghton is a multi-instrumentalist who plays flute, guitar, tin whistle, bouzouki, and three types of bagpipes (Highland, Northumbrian, and small pipes). He’s an intense man with a steely gaze and outwardly serious demeanor. Even his small jokes feel a bit measured. But he sure does wield his instruments with skill—particularly the small pipes, whose pips sound positively sweet when he plays them. Houghton’s notes don’t roll over you in waves like those of some pipers—they’re more like pulses that enter your head and zing about like caffeinated electrons.

Bews is the polar opposite. He’s a puckish wit whose feet are in such perpetual motion he could be declared an honorary Quebecois. Bews fiddles with the passion of one who figures that there’s just no sense in playing the music unless you intend to have some fun with it. He adds syncopation to Houghton’s precision and imbues a bit of wildness into the sets.

Cantrip’s reel and jig sets are their stock-in-trade. Much of their material came from their most recent album, Piping the Fish, though a highlight was “The Good Drying,” a rollicking reel from their debut record. All of the instrumentals were crisp and well executed. Cantrip’s only downside is the singing. Houghton is tuneful, but his voice lacks power and range. The songs served mostly to change the pace. It might help to choose less familiar material. How, for example, can one not conjure Andy M. Stewart on “The Queen of Argyll” and why invite a comparison you can’t best? But what the heck? As I said, it was a laidback night and Cantrip did its level best to pluck us out of out our late summer dreams and get our blood stirred.

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