How great it was to hear superb Scottish traditional music live once again — after a three month hiatus, over the week-end I at last got to take in two full concerts of the the finest Scottish traditional music at the Captain Charles Leonard House in Agawam (Massachusetts), part of the annual series of concerts Meg and Dan Sullivan host there! Joined on keyboards by Margie Waldrum, J.J. Chaisson’s always vibrant fiddle and guitar music delighted the sold-out shows both days and filled me with joy and exaltation.
J.J., usually accompanied by one or several members of his large, gifted, and well-known Bear River Chaisson clan on eastern Prince Edward Island, has been making annual trips to Meg and Dan Sullivan’s home now for many years; I have been privileged to have heard him on all of those most recent trips (reviews of those concerts from 2006 on are available in the Northeast Musical Events section of my website) as well as at the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival for the past three years. While he says he doesn’t read music (though he’s a gifted composer) and he doesn’t know the names of many of the traditional tunes he plays, he has been immersed in this music ab utero and has, fortunately for us all, made it his own. This year, as last year, he teamed up with the talented Margie Waldrum (of the New Jersey Celtic group Sonas) on keyboards, who provided fine accompaniments in the classical Cape Breton piano style that she, among very few American players, has mastered and made her own.
Even though she was still suffering from a severe bout of food poisoning from the previous day, the always game Meg Sullivan nevertheless opened the Saturday concert promptly at 19h30, as she always does. J.J. began with The Icing on the Cake, a waltz he wrote in tribute to his wife, Julie, for their wedding day and followed it by reels, first in F and then in G; this was a long set, running nearly twenty minutes — one great marvellous unstoppable torrent of gorgeous, foot-stomping music! A set of jigs in A followed, again just a super set of beautifully played toe-tapping tunes. Slowing things down a bit, J.J. next masterfully played J. Scott Skinner’s The Rose Bud of Allenvale in a style not far distant from that of Buddy MacMaster’s signature playing of this beautiful air — emotionally intense, gorgeously phrased, and beautifully sonorant; he followed it with some strathspeys and reels to which the audience responded as one with foot-tapping; Margie’s accompaniments throughout this set, both in the slow air and in the far faster tunes that followed, were just perfect. Switching to acoustic guitar, J.J. gave us three blisteringly-fast reels: Sheehan’s Reel, Princess Reel, and Paddy on the Turnpike, leaving no one in any doubts about his total mastery of this instrument! Returning to the fiddle, he then played my favourite J.J. composition to date, a hauntingly beautiful lament entitled Seas the Moment, the name of the boat owned by J.J.’s cousin, Charlie Campbell, a lobster fisherman killed by an impaired driver while Charlie was out jogging in 2006; on the CD version of this tune, Janna Cheverie supplies a stunningly perfect piano counterpoint to the plaintive fiddle melody — Margie absorbed her playing and gave it back in an equally compelling version — simply superb playing by both musicians! The first half of the concert then concluded with a set featuring J.J.’s Ella Rose’s Reel, written in honour of his young daughter, along with two other reels; the fine playing received continued toe-tapping from the audience, who sat contentedly basking in the just-finished hour of music before rising for refreshments and conversation.
In response to an audience member’s request, J.J. opened the second half of Saturday’s concert with yet another exquisitely played slow air, Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife, Margaret Urquhart of Perth, to whom he was happily married from 1768–1805 and whom he survived by only two years; the air was published in 1809, remains a staple in the Maritimes, and has since become beloved nearly everywhere it is heard; again, Margie’s accompaniment was extra fine. Next, we heard a set beginning with Dan Hughie MacEachern’s Kennedy Street March, with strathspeys and reels following; again, beautifully played great toe-tapping music that brings such joy to the spirit! This was quickly followed by a set of reels in B; as has become a tradition at each of these annual concerts, J.J. included Jingle Bells (Dashing Through the Snow) in the middle of this set, provoking titters in the audience as the tune was recognized. Picking up the guitar for the second time of the evening, J.J. then gave us a fine set of flying jigs, with which Margie had no problem keeping up; during this set, J.J. often appeared to be in another world completely lost in his music, a look I unfortunately failed to capture with my camera. Returning to the fiddle, he played The Dark Island, a pipe lament composed in 1963 by the late Iain MacLachlan which was subsequently set to words and used for a BBC TV thriller, The Dark Island, filmed in Benbecula (one of Scotland’s Outer Hebridean Islands) later that year. Another audience member’s request brought forth the Londonderry Air (Danny Boy), a popular tune in Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, where it is a favourite of the descendents of the Irish settlers there. Next came a short set of jigs associated with Jerry Holland, including Dan Collin’s Father’s Jig, a traditional tune which Jerry often played and included in Jerry Holland’s Collection of Fiddle Tunes (edited by Paul Stewart Cranford, Englishtown, 1992, ISBN 0-9691181-2-0). Then came a set of strathspeys in G followed by reels, more great foot-stomping music. J.J. then asked Zoë Darrow, who was inspired to switch from the classical to the Cape Breton fiddle style as a young child when she first heard J.J. play at one of Meg and Dan’s concerts, to join him and Margie for a set that started with Gordon MacLean’s very popular tune The Mortgage Burn and continued with two more reels. Giving Margie a short break, J.J. picked up the guitar once more and accompanied Zoë in a rousing version of Amy Cann’s reel Catharsis, popular in New England and beyond (it appears on Natalie MacMaster’s CD No Boundaries, whose liner notes say she picked it up in a pub session in Edinburgh). A standing ovation greeted this popular finale. Finally, joining Zoë on fiddle again and with Margie back at the piano, the evening concert closed with a rousing set of reels as an encore and a second standing ovation.
Sunday’s concert was musically very similar to Saturday’s though the sets were presented in a somewhat different order and three very young ladies, whom J.J. — a great hand with children — egged on, treated us to frequent step-dancing throughout the second half of the show, to the great delight of the audience and of the dancers themselves, I suspect. As on Saturday, Zoë joined J.J. and Margie for the concert’s final numbers; unlike Saturday, J.J. took over the keyboards to accompany the encore.
From having done it myself a number of times, I know how long the drive down from PEI is for J.J. and I thank him very much for continuing the long-standing tradition that brings him down to Meg and Dan’s each year — the joy he gives his audiences through his beautiful music and fine musicianship is priceless. Margie has only a slightly shorter drive than I do and I thank her too for making that drive in very nasty weather and for her very fitting and enjoyable accompaniments. Finally, I’d like to thank Meg and Dan Sullivan for enticing an incredible stream of excellent musicians to the series of house concerts they have hosted for many years, as well as for their always warm welcomes and great hospitality. It was a superb musical week-end that the weather could not spoil, and, for me, a most happy return to the live Scottish traditional music I have so badly missed over the past three months.