Hanneke Cassel: November 2022 Artist of the Month




Hanneke Cassel Band at West Whately Chapel


Some media outlets continue to call fiddler extraordinaire Hanneke Cassel a “rising star” in Celtic music. Good grief! After eight solo albums and two collaboration albums in less than two decades, what more do they need? (Or are they doing the famed Internet cut-and-paste-don’t-look-at-the date routine?) Do the math; that’s an album every two years.


To be sure, Ms. Cassel, a Portland, Oregon native who now lives in Somerville, has worn a lot of hats. She cut her teeth on Tex-Mex music before making her way to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school that doesn’t turn out half-talents. She was part of Berklee’s scholarship tour in 1996 and won the National Scottish Fiddle Championship the next year, a career-altering experience. It didn’t hurt to apprentice with Alasdair Fraser, my candidate for the finest Celtic fiddler on the planet. How good is Cassel? Good enough to teach at Fraser’s camp in California and instruct students in Boston. Good enough to wow audience across the globe. Good enough to try her hand at Baroque music.




Cassel specializes in Scottish and Cape Breton styles, the later island the home to older styles of Scottish music before they were influenced–for good or ill–by 19th century Victorianism. The Boston Irish Reporter calls her “artistic and emotive,” but what immediately strikes most people is her exuberance. A friend of mine endearingly calls her “The Energizer Bunny,” an apt appellation. Even though she’s also the mother of a two-year-old–her husband is cellist Mike Block, a superb player in his own right–Cassel is a performer who leaves it all on the stage. I caught her in a recent Watermelon Wednesday concert at the West Whately Chapel. Perhaps “see” is too tame a verb; she’s often a blur when her part comes around. That night she was with guitarist Keith Murphy and five-string fiddler Jenna Moynihan. Sometimes the Hanneke Cassel Band also includes cellist/fiddler Tristram Clarridge.


Cassel played from both her back catalogue and from her latest album, Over the Sea to Skye, which I don’t own yet, but given what I heard, I soon will. Like all good artists, her repertoire has grown more sophisticated over the years. There’s something sublime to be said of all her records, but if you want to hear her in her most traditional mode, her 2004 recording Some Melodious Sonnet offers old-style strathspeys, some jigs, a few early compositions, a couple of hymeneals (wedding songs), a journey to Norway, and even some Irish tunes. Pick up Dot the Dragon’s Eyes (great title!) and you can hear how she picked up the tempo in nine years, but also retained the grace. That’s really the key to great music; you let the music play you instead of trying to cast the spotlight on yourself. Do it well and the accolades follow. (How often have you stifled the urge to shout “Overdone!” at a concert or belt it out at home?)    


The best way to experience Cassel is to check her out for yourself. Here are a few live links that come close to capturing her performances. Close but only half of a cigar. The best way lies in the category of “You had to be there.”


Rob Weir


Instructional video for the Dot the Dragon’s Eyes title track. Note the control and emotion though it’s a fast-paced tune. You can turn it off at 1:41 if, like me, you’re only a fiddler in your dreams. 


Catch her with hubby Mike Block on a medley of “Christina’sJig/Dot the Dragon’s Eye.” I love the way she uses her whole arm and the subtle transition of tones and pace. And I adore the deep resonance of Block’s cello. Can “dark” light up a room? 


Think that went by fast, how about this Cape Breton set that includes a bit of everything with Montreal’s Yann Falquet.Precision + control = amazing. Having a lot of fun helps too!


The true test of a fiddler is how well they play a slow tune. Cassel’s take on the air “Hector the Hero” answers any questions about her prowess. Listen through to 4:21


Worst Person in the World is Uneven



Directed by Joachim Trier 

Oslo pictures/Snow Globe/Criterion, 127 minutes, R (nudity, sex )

In Norwegian with English subtitles 

* * *  


The Worst person in the World is far from being the worst movie in the world, but it's not as good as it should be unless your tolerance for about-to-be 30-year-olds struggling to grow up is higher than mine. 


Julie—an alluring Renate Reinsve–lives with Eksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), an underground comics artist. Although the story takes place in Oslo, Julie is flaky in ways analogous to Woody Allen's titular character in Annie Hall. She is impulsive and maddening, the sort of modern woman who is strong enough to express what she doesn't want, yet is clueless about what she does desire. Eksel is older than she and certainly more mature, his unconventional job notwithstanding. Among other things, he would like to have children; she doesn't. 


At this point I should mention that because all the men in this film are Norwegian, they are they are calm and behave well–no violence, screaming, or tantrums– even when they are being dumped. This will happen to Eksel when, Julie on a whim, crashes a party and finds herself attracted to a man her own age, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). They flirt and began to see each other, not to “cheat” they assure each other, but to be intimate in other ways –like swallowing smoke and smelling each other's armpits! As you can surmise in an Oslo minute, this will spiral out of control and Julie will dump Eksel and take up with Eivind. Theirs is a more tempestuous relationship, but is this what Julie actually desires? 


Director Joachim Trier tells this tale in a prologue, 12 chapter whose titles often set up what is about to happen, such as: “Bad Timing,” “Oral Sex in the Age of MeToo,”, “A New Chapter,” and “First Person Singular.” There is also an epilogue of which I will comment in a moment.  Trier’s direction and the cinematography of Kaspar Tuxen are the best things about the film. There is a superb sequence that occurs when Julie finally decides it's Eivind that she wants. She sprints across Oslo to be with him as all of the city freezes in place with only the two of them animated. 


Tuxen's camera work is stunning. He makes Oslo into a character and captures moods via blurring versus sharp focus and through visual contrasts: a sterile hospital versus crisp parks, moody walks juxtaposed against the energy of the city, and gray days jousting with vibrant sunsets. I'd have to go back to him again–yes Woody Allen–and his film Manhattan to find someone who connected the urban landscape to character moods as well as Trier in The Worst Person in the World. 


If only the script—cowritten by Trier and Esks Vogt–was as sharp. Reinsve won a lot of best actress hardware and is quite competent and fetching. Alas, her character is that of a Millennial in both the hopeful and annoying ways in which those born near the end of the 20th century can be.  Danielson Lie is also strong, especially when he goes into wounded hangdog mode. Maybe he’s a thing in Norway, but I found Nordrum less compelling. He comes off as a guy with a hunky body and a small brain. 


Shortly after we get a goofy portrait of Eivind’s ex-, Sunniva, who decides to go full Sami yoga queen though it's just 3.4% of her heritage, the movie shifts in tone and mood. Oddly, it moves from quirky to sentimental, tragic, and conservative. Why beat up on family values for part of the movie and then valorize them? Why, indeed, shift from offbeat to serious at all? 


The namesake worst person in the world is, of course, Julie. The title is a deliberate and ironic misnomer. She's a mess in many respects but, as psychological portraits go, she's not even a serious contender for the planet's most awful human being. We are not meant to take this literally; It is Julie's self-perception– until it isn't! This film gets labeled as a rom-com, but that’s off base unless you think introducing the Big C (cancer) is a bucket of laughs.  Plus, rom-coms are generally broader and they seldom stray upon tragic themes without a concomitant miraculous escape. The Worst Person in the World isn't a bad film, just a flawed and extremely uneven one. 


Rob Weir



Common Crackers for an Unexpected Treat

Common Cracker: The Exhibit

Through January 28, 2023 

Vermont History Museum 

109 State Street, Pavilion Building 

Montpelier, Vermont 




Have you ever visited a historical recreation of an old-time general store? Chances are good it features a large wooden barrel near the counter, perhaps with a checkers board atop it. If you thought it once held Saltines, let me make a counter claim. That’s a pun on my on my part, but those barrels were filled with “common crackers” not Saltines.  




I recently visited the Vermont History Museum and found myself fascinated by a common crackers exhibit I assumed would be as boring as waiting for the laundry to finish. If you are unfamiliar with this humble culinary offering, they are about 2 inches in diameter, about the size of a Ritz cracker, though it bears little resemblance to the flaky, buttery, and additive-laden Ritz wafers.  




Common crackers were a staple of the 19th century New England diet if for no other reason, they kept forever in an age of rudimentary refrigeration. Non-knowers confuse them with oyster crackers, but those are much smaller–about 5/8” in diameter–though they share the quality of being relatively tasteless. Common crackers are also sometimes confused with hardtack, but the latter –a favored food of long-range travelers like sailors and cowboys­– is much less palatable. As its name suggests it's like chewing on a piece of board, though worms seem to like them. Unlike hardtack, common crackers contain yeast. They are meticulously kneaded, rise for 24 hours, baked, and air dried. This makes them puffier and easier to split, which means you can put yummy things inside of them, such as cheddar cheese or butter and jam.


Relatives of ours who grew up in Massachusetts devoured a dish called “cracker toast.” Common crackers were placed in a bowl of warm milk into which butter had been melted, and a dash of salt was added. It creates a sort of mush, not exactly gourmet dining, but it’s surprisingly warming winter fare. A similar concoction is called “cracker and milk” in other parts of New England. Common crackers proved to have many other uses as well; they could be crumbled and used to coat other foods and, according to no less an expert than Julia Child, provide a unique substitute for oyster crackers in chowder. 




Before you dismiss the common cracker, know that millions were produced in Vermont during the 19th century. Who actually invented them is contestable. Theodore Pearson of Newburyport MA claimed credit, but his crackers are thought to be more of a cousin to yeast-less hardtack. Another Bay Stater claims he invented the common cracker in 1801, Artemus Kennedy of Arlington, MA said he did in1805, and to confuse matters more, an English immigrant to New Jersey claims he did so in 1842. You might encounter the term “Boston Crackers,” though today they are allegedly softer than the originals. Maine also got into the act; Portland Crackers were a thing.



 Vermonters responded that other claimants made prototypes of oyster crackers and the real deal was made by the Orton family in the 1820s. The Cross clan certainly invented the first machine to mass produce crackers in 1847, when Vermonters consumed common crackers with glee and in great volume. Before the 20th century dawned, it was as if every town in Vermont had its own common cracker: Burlington, Brattleboro, Morrisville, Montpelier, Rutland, St. Johnsbury, and a concern that straddled the White River/Hanover NH sides of the Connecticut River.  


The triumph of corporations doomed most of the small concerns and changed consumer palettes. Saltines dominate, but they are made by Nabisco, a multinational giant. Common crackers haven't disappeared, though. Hannaford's still sells them and the Vermont Country Store will mail you a reusable tin filled with common crackers they claim are based on the 1828 Orton recipe. You can also find items that that come in various colors and flavors, though they are abominations IMHO. 


With the holiday season upon us with all manner of sugary, caloric offerings, why not give the humble common cracker a taste drive? If you can, stop by Montpelier to unearth a fascinating chapter from the past. If that doesn't make you want to try common crackers, I can't help you.


Rob Weir