Zoë Darrow and the Fiddleheads at Agawam

2008 February 16 (Saturday)
Captain Charles Leonard House, 663 Main Street, Agawam, Massachusetts
Zoë Darrow and the Fiddleheads
$14.00 by advance reservation via e-mail to Meg Sullivan at
or by phone at +1 (413) 789-9267; $18.00 at the door
The original schedule had Zoë performing on both Saturday, February 16 (at 19h30) and Sunday, February 17 (at 14h); the Sunday concert was cancelled.

Review for the Cape Breton Music List
(Posted 2008 February 18)

I have previously written here (and in several earlier postings to the Cape Breton music list) about the Western Massachusetts trio known as Zoë Darrow and the Fiddleheads: their annual February concerts hosted by Meg and Dan Sullivan, this year again at the Charles Leonard House in Agawam (Massachusetts), have become a tradition in the area. Like many of this popular group’s concerts of late, this concert sold out early; Meg had requests for over 200 tickets (in a venue that holds 75) and even an offer of $100 to fit a latecomer in (declined, of course, out of fairness to everyone else)!

The group consists of Zoë Darrow from Blandford, Massachusetts, playing fiddle and, once, bodhràn; Phil Darrow, her father, on guitar and occasionally on mandolin; and Tom Coburn, a local musician and organist, on piano. Zoë’s inspiration (at age six) for abandoning classical violin and taking up Scottish traditional music came from hearing the Chaisson family youngsters playing—they were not then much older; immersed in it ever since, her background includes a firm grounding in Scottish traditional music from both the Cèilidh Trail School of Music and the Gaelic College in St. Anns as well as on visits to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. She has also been influenced by the strong Irish musical culture of Western Massachusetts and spent some time in Ireland last year. Now a mature lady of eighteen years, she is the centrepiece of a group that has imbued the music with their own style and made it distinctively their own, as they proved to the enthusiastic and delighted audience on Saturday night in the best show I have seen from them to date.

They have two CD’s, Please Don’t Eat the Fiddleheads!, issued in 2002, and Fiddle Me This, issued last year, both available at the show and from their web site. I was pleased to finally get my copy of this latter CD and listened to it several times on the trip back from Massachusetts on Sunday (I had enjoyed the former on the way up). I was delighted to find several of the numbers I heard at the concert on Saturday on this CD, which is the first to include Tom Coburg’s piano.

A very important element of this group, Tom’s musicianship and arrangements are remarkable, nowhere more so than in the slow tunes where he sets up a lovely complex rhythmic motion beneath the lyric violin that enriches the music in ways new to my ears, but also in providing driving rhythms and percussion in the fast tunes, which Phil’s guitar supplements and reïnforces. All this wonderful scaffolding would be for nought without Zoë’s fine playing blended in: her mastery of her instrument comes through best in the several slow airs she played (Over the Moor Among the Heather, Neil Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife, Dargai, If Ever You Were Mine, and The Cuckoo, to name some) where her tone at times sounds rich enough to be a viola, but she is no slouch when it comes to the fast tunes either as several numbers, including Brucie and the Troopers and Catharsis proved this evening. Indeed, jigs, strathspeys both fast and slow, reels, hornpipes, and even a tune with the rhythm of a tango came pouring forth with virtuosic ease and technical accuracy. Blended into the background set up by the other two members of the group, the sound is a distinctive whole that is unmistakably theirs.

Zoë is also a step-dancer and at the end of both halves of the show, she gave us some steps, ending with step-dancing whilst playing the fiddle. She has definitely perfected her showmanship, poised and confident, holding the audience in the palm of her hand. But, for all that, it was still the slow airs and those sets which featured Cape Breton tunes and decorative embellishments, complete with a heavy foot, that most delighted me.

In the number immediately following the break, Zoë took up the bodhràn (built for her by our host Dan Sullivan) while Phil played a lovely mandolin tune that Zoë then continued on solo fiddle; I am no connoisseur of bodhràn playing, but the number sounded fine to me. I did not get a chance to ask Zoë how she is coming on the pipes, in which I know she has expressed an interest in the past, but none were in evidence at the concert.

The audience at the Agawam concerts (like many others I attend) usually runs almost exclusively to grey-beards and grey-heads such as myself, but the packed house, for once, had a number of folks younger than Zoë present. Zoë is very well-known in the area and at least one aspiring young violinist was present to pick up tips. It was delightful seeing the enthusiasm for this music being passed to a younger generation.

As always, my deep thanks go to Meg and Dan Sullivan for hosting this series of fine concerts during which I have heard so much great music. The next concert in the series will be J.J. Chaisson from Prince Edward Island on 15 and 16 March; Cape Breton’s Kimberley Fraser will also be appearing on 3 May. Both are “do not miss” shows in this marvellous concert series.


Meg Sullivan opens the show

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Zoë Darrow step-dancing

Zoë Darrow step-dancing and fiddling

Zoë Darrow step-dancing and fiddling

Zoë Darrow playing bodhràn

Phil Darrow on mandolin

Tom Coburg on piano

Tom Coburg on piano

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Phil Darrow on guitar

Dan Sullivan minding the sound board

Zoë Darrow step-dancing

Zoë Darrow step-dancing and fiddling