Zoë Darrow and the Fiddleheads
at the Iron Horse Music Hall (Northampton)

Event Summary

2009 March 15 (Sunday)
19h (Sunday)
Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center Street, Northampton, Massachusetts
Zoë Darrow and the Fiddleheads in concert.
$12.50 by advance reservation at Northampton Box Office Tickets (incurs an additional $4.00 service charge) or $15.00 at the door

Review for the Cape Breton Music List
(Posted 2009 March 23)

Since I was in the area for the J. J. Chaisson concerts at the Captain Charles Leonard House over the week-end, I decided to stay for the Zoë Darrow and the Fiddleheads concert Sunday evening at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton (Massachusetts), a fairly short drive away. It was my first time there, but, thanks to a friend who kindly guided me from Agawam to Northampton, I had no problem finding the Iron Horse in downtown Northampton.

Thanks to Meg and Dan Sullivan’s concerts at the Captain Charles Leonard House over the years (see, e.g., here and here), I have become quite enamoured of Zoë’s vibrant, energetic, and lively fiddle playing. Only nineteen and in her first year of university, she already has two recordings to her credit: Please Don’t Eat the Fiddleheads! (2002) and Fiddle Me This (2007). She has attended the Cèilidh Trail School of Music in Inverside and the Gaelic College in St. Anns and last summer played with local musicians while visiting Ireland. Zoë is joined by Tom Coburn, a local musician and organist, on piano and by her father, Phil, on guitar and occasionally mandolin. Together, they produce spirited music: in addition to Scottish traditional fiddle music as heard in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, the group also plays traditional Irish and contemporary American fiddle music, both very popular as well in Western Massachusetts.

As I discovered when I got to the theatre, I am hardly alone in my enjoyment of the Fiddleheads’ music: they are a local favourite and there was already a long queue outside the theatre, waiting for the 17h30 opening of the doors. Indeed, I had done very well to have acquired my tickets beforehand, as the concert was sold out and the theatre filled up very quickly once the doors were opened. Luckily, I got a seat right below the stage that gave me a fine view of the proceedings, except that I could not see Tom, who was hidden behind the grand piano on stage. The Iron Horse Music Hall’s seating is not that of a classical theatre; instead, it has chairs arrayed around a large number of tables spread about over two floors, all with clear sight lines to the stage. Prior to the concert and between halves, it offers pub beverages and pub food, which were very welcome as I had no time to eat between the end of the afternoon Agawam concert and my arrival at the Iron Horse. Thanks to my friend’s conversation, the time before the concert passed very quickly.

Zoë opened the concert with a beautiful rendition of Over the Moor Among the Heather, played as a slow air and enhanced by Tom’s marvellous piano accompaniment, and followed it with King George’s Strathspey, Dinky Dorian’s, and The King’s Reel; the piano and the guitar both provided a fine foundation for the strathspey and the reels, as they did through all the sets—Zoë is very fortunate in her accompanists! The second set was unfamiliar to me, a waltz, a strathspey, and some reels with a very Irishy character. The third set featured Jean’s Reel and MacArthur Road. The fourth set was inspired by Beòlach and featured a very nicely done Norman’s Reel, a fine Donald Angus Beaton tune. Next came a set beginning with a march I have often heard, a reel I do not know, and ending with the reel The Longford Collector. Zoë then played a fine Cape Breton set, featuring Dan R. MacDonald’s Moxham Castle, Sandy MacLean’s Dismissal Reel. and the traditional West Mabou Reel, sometimes attributed to Donald John (the Tailor) Beaton. Since J. J. Chaisson was in the audience and since he had asked Zoë to play at his Saturday concert at the Captain Charles Leonard House, she asked him to come to the stage to reciprocate the favour. On dual fiddles, they then gave us a great jig set starting with Darla’s Jig and continuing with several others. They next gave us two fine tunes, Northside Kitchen, associated with Brenda Stubbert’s playing, and Jerry Holland’s Brenda Stubbert’s Reel. Tom and Phil then left the stage and J. J. took up Phil’s guitar, accompanying Zoë on fiddle during the next set. Phil then came back on guitar, while J. J. and Zoë gave us a long high-energy set, during which Zoë step-danced. J. J. then left the stage and Tom returned to provide another very fine accompaniment to the Irish air The Mermaid, which Zoë followed with the Irish reels Mist on the Mountain and Over the Moor to Maggie. She ended the first half with another energetically played set featuring the jigs The Black Rogue, Rocking the Baby, and Calliope House, followed by the reels Rorie’s Reel, Shetland Fiddler, and The Clumsy Lover.

After a break that allowed the rapt and enthusiastic audience to catch its collective breath and converse about the amazing musical tour-de-force it had just witnessed, the lights dimmed once again and Zoë reäppeared to gave us a fine bodhràn solo, after which Phil played a mandolin tune to Zoë’s accompaniment on bodhràn and Tom’s on piano. The next set featured a clog or a hornpipe (or both—I can’t quite make out which from my hastily scribbled notes). Then came a vigorous set Zoë learnt from J. P. Cormier, who learnt it from the Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, featuring Whistler from Rosslea, Conner Dunn’s, and Good Natured Man. Slowing it down a bit, Zoë then gave us a beautifully played If Ever You Were Mine. The next set was composed mostly of tunes I don’t know, presumably Irish because they drew a lot of clapping from the audience, who clearly did know them well; the final tunes, which I did know, ended with a wild frenzy of playing—an amazing performance! The next set again took it slower, beginning with an air I’ve heard before, switching to reels I hadn’t known, the whole sounding as if in a minor key. Zoë then invited J. J. back to the stage and they played on dual fiddles Donald Angus Beaton’s Ann MacQuarrie Reel, another tune, and ended the set with Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Welcome to the Shetland Islands, written by Shetlander Willie Hunter in the Cape Breton style to welcome the group known as the Cape Breton Symphony to the Shetlands Islands in 1982. The final set was a great group of Cape Breton tunes including the reel The Night We Had the Goats. This performance was greeted by a standing ovation, which lasted long enough to cause the players to give us yet another fine set to round out the evening’s performance.

Even though she had played for a good two and a half hours, Zoë was as fresh at the end as she was at the beginning—what a gift it is to be nineteen with the energy and talent this young lady has! It was certainly a concert to remember, full of infectious music, from slow airs gorgeously rendered and reels played accurately at breakneck speed not only by Zoë, but also by her collaborators who produced an evening of eminently listenable traditional music. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to hear this superb group, you should certainly avail yourself of the next chance, which will apparently be the 16 May concert at the Captain Charles Leonard House (no other engagements are currently listed on Zoë’s web page schedule).


Because of where I was sitting, I have photos of Tom Coburn only from the end of the show when he appeared to take his bows with the others. In most of the other photos, he is on stage, but hidden behind the grand piano he was playing to great effect.

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Phil Darrow on guitar

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Phil Darrow on guitar

Zoë Darrow on fiddle accompanied by Phil Darrow on guitar

Zoë Darrow and J. J. Chaisson on dual fiddles

Zoë Darrow and J. J. Chaisson on dual fiddles

Zoë Darrow and J. J. Chaisson on dual fiddles accompanied by Phil Darrow on guitar

Zoë Darrow and J. J. Chaisson on dual fiddles accompanied by Phil Darrow on guitar

Zoë Darrow step-dancing

Zoë Darrow on fiddle accompanied by J. J. Chaisson on guitar

Zoë Darrow and J. J. Chaisson on dual fiddles accompanied by Phil Darrow on guitar

Zoë Darrow on bodhràn

Phil Darrow on mandolin

Phil Darrow on mandolin

Zoë Darrow on fiddle

Zoë Darrow and J. J. Chaisson on dual fiddles

Tom’s forehead can be seen just below the top of the grand piano in this photo.

Zoë Darrow step-dancing

Zoë Darrow step-dancing while fiddling

The top of Tom’s head can again be seen just below the top of the grand piano in this photo. Sorry I couldn’t do better, Tom!

J. J. Chaisson step-dancing while fiddling

Zoë Darrow step-dancing while fiddling

Tom Coburn at the end of the show

Tom Coburn at the end of the show