Can you believe it? Great traditional Scottish fiddle music in the Maritime style in New Jersey! I never thought I’d live to see it! About the only brush with such music available to residents in the Garden State has been the occasional tour stop by Natalie MacMaster’s band, so two solid hours of fine Scottish fiddle music accompanied only by guitar in an intimate setting came as a very pleasant and totally unanticipated surprise. How did this come to be?
Margie Waldrum, a talented pianist and keyboard accompanist, played with J. J. Chaisson on his annual St. Patricks Day visits to western Massachusetts during a pair of concerts in 2009 (review and photos here) and in 2010 (review and photos here). Knowing that he would be playing again this year in Westfield (Massachusetts) over the St. Patricks Day week-end with his brother Koady on guitar, she arranged a gig for them on St. Patricks Day afternoon at Shenanigan's Pub in Rockaway (New Jersey), which I was unfortunately unable to attend, and invited them, with the blessing of Patrice Picard, the Executive Director of the Family Service of Morris County organization, for which Margie works, to put on a concert there as a way to raise some funds for the organization and to publicize its worthy goals. Margie’s vision is of a series of such concerts in the future, not restricted to traditional Scottish music, but providing a place where fine music of all varieties can be heard. I wish her great success with this vision; certainly, this concert was carried off with great aplomb and professionalism to an enthusiastic audience in a nearly sold-out room seating 80, with assistance from Meg and Dan Sullivan of Westfield, who have a long and successful experience spanning many years in organizing such concerts and who also provided the sound equipment used for the concert.
After introductory remarks by Patrice Picard and by Margie, J. J. on fiddle and Koady on guitar began the concert with a blazing set of reels, including the St Anne’s Reel so often heard in the Maritimes. Catching his breath, J. J. told the audience about the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival in eastern Prince Edward Island, which will take place this year 14-17 July (as of this writing, the festival’s web site has not yet been updated for this year’s festival). Run by the Chaisson family to raise funds to provide fiddle lessons for local youth, this will be its 35th year; if you are a lover of traditional Scottish fiddle music played in the Maritime style, this festival is not to be missed: it attracts the finest musicians from all over the Maritimes and beyond and is unique in my experience, filled with non-stop music, song, and dance over four days in a family-friendly atmosphere and enjoyed by a horde of enthusiasts of this music. Having recovered their breath, J. J. and Koady then launched into an equally ardent set of jigs. Slowing down a bit, they next gave us a slow air, but then launched into a fiery Tullochgorum, followed by several reels; a tour de force illustrating J. J.’s great talent on the fiddle and showcasing Koady’s no less fine work, which was especially noticeable on the slow air. Keeping up the pace, a set of reels in D minor followed, including the Knock Knock Reel that J. J. said he wrote when playing with the now disbanded group Kindle, formed of five Chaisson cousins; I’m unable to find any information about this tune and don’t have it in my collection. The first half of the concert ended with J. J. picking out fast fiddle tunes on the guitar, with Koady keeping up and complementing J. J.’s every move — exciting music that drew a great round of applause.
After the break, J. J. took up the fiddle again and with Koady on guitar gave us a great set of tunes in F. He then talked about lobster fishing, much on his mind because he will soon be out on the water as the lobster season will soon be under way, and about the very poor prices lobster has been getting in the past couple of years, creating great hardships for the fishermen, who are unable to cover their expenses. Next came a long set of spirited jigs, beginning with Natalie MacMaster’s Volcanic Jig and including The Irish Washerwoman. With a brief introduction, J. J. then gave us the beautiful lament, Seas the Moment, he wrote in memory of his friend Charlie Campbell, who was out jogging when he was killed by a drunk driver; while I missed the stunningly perfect piano accompaniment Janna Cheverie provides on the CD version of this tune with its plaintive tolling ringing out over the sonorous fiddle sounding much like an organ, Koady’s guitar accompaniment, while very different from Janna’s, was beyond fine. A much happier set of E minor tunes followed, with some great strathspeys, J. J.’s Ella Rose’s Reel, composed for his young daughter, and other reels. Still more reels, this time in B, including J. J.’s Lavie Avenue Reel, followed. Koady, who was apparently known for his step-dancing when younger, engaging in duels with his brother on fiddle to see who could last the longest, was then goaded into step-dancing, first by J. J. asking him to get up and dance and then by the audience chants of Koa-dy-Koa-dy echoing through the room; J. J. then got up and joined his brother, fiddling as he danced. At the end, the audience gave the brothers a well-deserved standing ovation and were then treated to an encore of more reels, one of which I recognized as Gordon MacLean’s great The Mortgage Burn.
What a magnificent concert this was! J. J. was superb on fiddle and I got to hear Koady at length for the first time, discovering what a fine accompanist he is. It was certainly a great start to Margie’s vision of a series of concerts in this setting, whose acoustics are superb and intimate, very like those of the Captain Charles Leonard House in Agawam. I certainly wish her and her sponsoring organization great success in this endeavour! Who knows what else we may see in New Jersey?!
Saturday evening, Meg and Dan Sullivan hosted their annual J. J. concert at St. Marys High School in Westfield. This event attracted well over 140 attendees who knew of J. J.’s great music from the many previous concerts he’s given in this area — he’s been coming here now since he was a young lad. Due to a previous commitment, Margie was unable to fill in on piano — and she had been far too busy to do so at Morristown — so we missed out on hearing her fine accompaniments this year. While similar to the Morristown concert, this one was not identical, but certainly just as good.
After a welcome from Meg Sullivan, an initial wild set of strathspeys and reels, played at breakneck speed, was followed by a great set of jigs in B, including The Idle Jig, written by J. J.’s first cousin, Brent Chaisson, and Ellen MacPhee. Next, J. J. and Koady gave us Jerry Holland’s tune Tears (this tune appears on both Helping Hands and Jerry Holland and Friends in two quite distinct renderings); it was eerie how closely J. J.’s playing was reminiscent of Jerry’s — J. J. was not playing his own fiddle, but one somewhat sharper sounding to my ears, at least, but that was not the only source of the resemblance! The next set included another Jerry Holland tune and again, during that tune, it sounded to my ears as if it were Jerry playing, not J. J.; fantastic work! The set starting with The Volcanic Jig that I heard at the Morristown concert was then played. At the request of an audience member, they next gave us a march/strathspeys/reels set, the first reel of which was J. J.’s Ella Rose’s Reel; both players were “really drivin’ ’er” in this incredible set! The first half ended, as did the Morristown concert’s first half, with J. J. and Koady on dual guitars, picking out jigs and reels at high speed and perfect accuracy. One could only say wow! The audience was abuzz as everyone broke for refreshments and socializing.
The concert resumed with reels in D, E-minor, and E-major, with both still playing guitar, apparently because the guitars in the set before the break were a bit out of tune to J. J.’s ears, so he wanted it to be done right! Switching back to fiddle, J. J. then gave us Elmer Briand’s gorgeous air Beautiful Lake Ainslie (with Koady’s subtle, but superb, accompaniment on guitar), followed by a clog and reels in F. Beginning with the King George strathspey, a blazing set of strathspeys and reels followed. Then came the lovely Seas the Moment lament, wherein I was again taken with Koady’s accompaniment, this time followed without pause by Tullochgorum and several more reels; it was a showy set with lots of bouncing bow work by J. J. that brought Meg’s granddaughters, their friend, and Zoë Darrow onto the floor below the stage for some enthusiastic step-dancing. Another set of reels followed. J. J. then invited Zoë to the stage to join him on fiddle for the last set of the concert, reels in A, during which Koady was again goaded into step-dancing and joined by J. J. fiddling away as he danced. Ringing applause from the audience in a standing ovation got us one last set of reels, in which Zoë continued to join in. It was a fabulous concert, filled with passionate playing and wonderful music by all the musicians. What a joy to have been there!
Thanks are due to the folks at St. Marys High School for providing a fine venue: although the concert hall is also a gymnasium, its acoustics, at least given Dan Sullivan’s excellent work on the sound boards, were superb, making it a perfect place for such a concert. And Meg and Dan, whose great work over many years in nurturing this music and keeping it alive in Western Massachusetts (and making it possible even here in New Jersey!) deserve our recognition and sincerest thanks.