Sara Michel and Friends

2008 April 19 (Saturday)
Private house concert at the Captain Charles Leonard House, 663 Main Street, Agawam, Massachusetts
Sarah Michel presents an evening of traditional Celtic/Irish fiddle music.
$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

Review for the Cape Breton Music List
(Posted 2008 April 21)

Sarah Michel (whose last name is pronounced as if spelled Michael) was the featured artist at the 19 April concert at the Captain Charles Leonard House in Agawam. She is a classically trained fiddler from Western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley who has grown up in the competitive fiddle scene and won many of the competitions in which she has participated over the years in both the United States and Canada. While on that circuit, she has made many friends, three of whom, all from Vermont, joined her for the evening: Scott Campbell, a member of the country/rockabilly band Burke Mountain Bandits, is a strings player—fiddle, guitar, and mandolin; Rick Commo plays keyboards, often accompanying the fiddlers in competitions and playing at contra dances in New England; and Donna Commo plays electric bass and also serves as a judge in competitions. Sarah is also a member of the popular local band Sweet Wind, whose music is a fusion of Celtic and folk rock; Keith DaSilva, a percussionist also with this band, was the fifth member of the combo. These players also appear with Sarah on her forthcoming CD, Stories of a Fiddler, to be released in June, though they do not normally play together as a group. It was my first encounter with any of them.

Sarah and Keith opened the show with a traditional set that ended with the St. Anne’s Reel, played with verve and vigour and technical mastery that had the audience clapping and stomping along. From the opening number, Sarah grabbed our attention and kept it for the rest of the evening. Her sound for this set was very much in the Ottawa Valley style of fiddling. After bringing the three remaining members of the combo on stage and introducing them, they all launched into a rousing trio of traditional American favourites, Turkey in the Straw, Red Wing, and Liberty; the audience couldn’t have been more pleased. This was music as I remember it being played from the barn dances of my early childhood in the North Country of northern New York State, in the days before television arrived and, sadly, wiped out both the dances and the traditional music they featured. For the third selection, the mood changed completely; while based on traditional tunes, it was played in Ashley MacIsaac’s non-traditional style; while not as close to punk rock as I’ve heard Ashley get, it was close enough that I’d have been happier had it not been on the programme, even though it was impossible not to enjoy Sarah’s mastery of her instrument as she played the very demanding set. The fourth number was another complete change of pace: a slow air, Far Away, I had not heard before, beautifully phrased and played in a more classical style than heard previously; it was followed by a couple of jigs that had the audience again in a toe-tapping frame of mind. The fifth set was Walking Uptown followed by Maytime Swing, intended as a tribute to the late Graham Townsend, who frequently played these fine tunes, and was played very much as he would have. The sixth set consisted of three fine waltzes, in which Scott Campbell played three instruments, guitar on the first, fiddle on the second, and mandolin on the third. I didn’t catch the title of the seventh number, a hornpipe based on an English song; although I didn’t enjoy this tune all that much, I was fascinated watching Keith play two different drums at the same time, a djembe (with which I was familiar from Nathan Silva’s playing) and a dumbek (the first syllable rhymes with doom); the djembe was between his knees and the dumbek under his arms and he was simultaneously active on both, an amazing performance, at least to me, who rarely sees drummers. The final number of the first half, for which no title was given, was a Liz Carrollish thing, technically very demanding on the fiddler, but which just goes round and round without ever achieving tunefulness.

After a well-deserved break, Sarah invited Jake Mira (I’m uncertain of his name’s spelling), whom she had met doing sessions in the area, to join the group on accordion; they played a polka set, the second tune of which was the Beer Barrel Polka; a fine set, it got the audience clapping and toe-tapping again. This was followed by another rousing set, this time with a distinct Nashville flavour (Sarah gave the title of the first tune, but my handwriting is too messed up to decipher it). Then, in classical mode, we heard a fine Italian show piece number in B minor. Next, Sarah and Keith performed an Irish “bar set” of three tunes, whose names I didn’t get. The fifth set started with two jigs and ended with the Masons Apron, all gorgeously played, the first in an almost Cape Breton style and the latter two in a Graham Townsend style. Yet another change of pace gave us America the Beautiful, dedicated to those who have served and are serving their country, and played very movingly. The last set began with Sarah and Rick doing a piano duet, which segued into the Orange Blossom Special on which Scott joined Sarah on fiddle, rip-roaringly played by all, with a detour by Scott into If I Were a Rich Man before returning again to the Orange Blossom Special! This brought down the house with a standing ovation, very well-deserved. For their encore, they played a set of fine barn dance tunes, perfectly played, that resulted in a second standing ovation.

This was certainly a variety concert, with a range of fiddle styles and music that showcased Sarah Michel’s many talents and technical mastery of her instrument; I know of no other fiddler who can sound so convincing in each of such a gamut of styles. The other members of the combo followed her through all the twists and turns of her programme, always tastefully and appropriately; it sounded as if they had been playing together for years, but, except for the sessions needed to put together Sarah’s forthcoming CD, on which some of these sets will also appear, they do not regularly perform together. The accompanists are clearly fine musicians in their own right, though the programme’s emphasis was always on the fiddle, so they had only an occasional opportunity to demonstrate their artistry as soloists.

When the concert started, I was a bit concerned about what I was going to hear, especially when I saw the kit drum Keith ably used to fine effect in several of the numbers, as I do not tolerate rock and roll nor Celtic rock very well; I needn’t have worried, as Meg and Dan Sullivan’s impeccable taste in putting together their concert series ensured that we had a great evening of mostly traditional music, though rather more North American than Maritime this evening. In spite of the rare number I could have gladly skipped, I would very much enjoy hearing this group perform again. So, once more, kudos to Meg and Dan for their efforts in putting this marvellous series of house concerts together and to the musicians for an evening of fine music.


Meg Sullivan opens the show

Sarah Michel on fiddle

Keith DaSilva on djembe

Scott Campbell on guitar

Keith DaSilva on djembe and dumbek and Donna Commo on electric bass

Rick Commo on keyboards

Sarah Michel on fiddle

Scott Campbell on fiddle

Donna Commo on electric bass

Keith DaSilva on djembe and dumbek

Jake Mira (?) on accordion

Scott Campbell on mandolin

Rick Commo on keyboards

Sarah Michel on upright piano and Rick Commo on keyboards

Dan Sullivan minding the sound board