Another »anniversary« book and CD, this time out of Boston - and one can't help wondering if maybe the East Coast folks don't want to tag too far behind the San Francisco Branch, whose wonderful »San Francisco Collection, Vol. 2« made quite an impact a couple of years ago. So again we have a huge agglomeration of talent contributing to a single CD: no fewer than sixteen different bands from the Boston area including well-known favourites such as, Local Hero, and even the Strathspey & Reel Society of New Hampshire, as well as musicians familiar to Boston dancers but seldom heard outside their »home ground«. In any case the variety of instrumentation and style is quite dazzling, and it should probably be said right at the beginning that those whose idea of Scottish dance music is based on the »two-box, one (hardly audible) fiddle« setup common in Scotland will find this CD much too »American« for their liking, but at least this reviewer enjoyed most of the arrangements very much (although some are probably close to being too much of a good thing even so).
The CD starts out with Susan Worland and Beth Murray playing Barbara McOwen's »Auld Reekie Hornpipe« (heard before as a supporting tune on the Carfuffle Ceilidh Band release,) with lots of drive - a great opener. Next comes Susie Petrov's band, Local Hero with a haunting rendition of Gaelic tunes »Braighe Bhanbh« and »Teiníaigheir air gach beann dhuibh« for the 3x32 strathspey, »Anna's Wedding Cake«. This is a short piece but the way the various lead instruments - piano, fiddle, accordion, flute - pass the melody back and forth makes for exciting listening (and dancing).
There are two tracks on the CD featuring the Highland pipes, and while I must say I don't totally subscribe to the idea of Highland pipes for dancing the way the instrument is included in the third and fifteenth track of the album makes it meld in the total sound without being very obtrusive - and still adding some unusual pizazz. Track 3 features award-winning Lezlie Webster in the group »Pipes awa'« (who recorded a listening CD in 1989) for the dance »Flights of Fancy«, an 8x32 jig devised by Strathspey regular Jeanetta McColl.
The CD continues with a medley, »The Maine Medley«, of mostly traditional strathspeys and reels played in the fiddle-driven style that now seems to be moving back to SCD bands in Britain by the band »Highland Whisky« and special guest Elke Baker. Next comes another fiddle-and-piano track, unusually a 5x40 bar reel called »Hal Robinson's Rant«, played by Anne Hooper, Hanneke Cassel, and Jacqueline Schwab on piano with tunes by Anne Hooper and Niel Gow. Track 6, the 4x32 »Monmouth Ramble« is again a more unusual set from the point of view of instrumentation, featuring Duncan Smith and Beth Murray as a piano duo moving through four traditional »air« strathspeys at a fairly zippy pace, but with lots of »feeling«. Scott Skinner would have approved!
It says a lot about the American approach to SCD music that an obvious accordion doesn't make an appearance until the seventh track of the CD, with Sylvia Miskoe's White Cockade and their unmistakable sound of an arrangement featuring a Bert Murray lead tune written for Sylvia herself and two Robert Mackintosh tunes, for the 4x32 bar jig »Stoner House« (devised by Paul Hemenway). Another Bert Murray tune - the »Aberdeen Schottische« - is used for one of the two »generic« tracks on the album, a Highland Schottische. Scottish dance music enthusiasts on the Internet can hardly have missed John Chambers's massive collection of Scottish tunes, and he's playing the accordion on this set, together with Christine Anderson on fiddle and Terry Traub on piano. From this intimate trio the CD moves to the massive orchestral sound of the Strathspey & Reel Society of New Hampshire for Robert McOwen's dance, »Burns Night«. What a change! It must be said that while it is difficult to get such a large group - no less than 13 fiddlers, with another dozen of miscellaneous other instruments - to play together with enough drive and lift for Scottish country dancing, the SRSNH are managing it really well here.
With track 10 we're back to violins and piano (with an occasional viola thrown in for good measure). The only 8x32 bar strathspey on the CD, this is »The Earl of Northampton«, who in fact is none other than fiddler Earl Gaddis, playing here together with Laura Risk and Karen Axelrod. Pianist Axelrod composed the lead tune, which appears together with the late Kim McGarrity's »Briar Rose« and »Welcome to Hamilton House« by Muriel Johnstone - both favourite tunes of mine. This is one of the arrangements that purists will probably find too complex and affected, but I happen to enjoy it very much, and it went down very well in my class when I taught the dance (I wouldn't want to use it every week, though - stuff like this is probably best left for special treats). The next track is a more straightforward set for a 4x32 reel called »The 25th Reel«, with Ed Pearlman (who also wrote the lead tune) on fiddle and Lydia Smith on piano, but nevertheless it leaves nothing to be desired from the point of view of a dancer.
Always in the international spirit, track 12 is a medley »The Latvian Lass«, devised by the Boston Branch demonstration team for Latvian-born Izolde Lamont. This is again in a style closer to the familiar »dance band« sound, played here by the Carfuffle Ceilidh Band, but with the special addition of a Latvian tune. This is also a track where the usually good sound quality is marred in a few places when the fiddle plays the melody but is hardly audible over the accordion chords. The next track, »Northern Harmony« brings together Tom Pixton on accordion with Susie Petrov's piano backup. Again one of the musicians - Tom Pixton - composed the lead tune to go with the 8x32 bar jig devised by Gregor Trinkaus-Randall.
Another of the more venerable recording bands to be heard on this album is Barbara and Robert McOwen's, playing here for the 4x32 bar strathspey, »Fill the Fetters« (by Howard and Roberta Lasnik). This is again a »non-accordion« band, with two fiddles and bass projecting a lot of energy on top of the piano and (unobtrusive) drum backup. This music really puts the »u« in »urge« (as some my American friends would say). The last Scottish dance track on the CD brings back the Highland pipes - this time played by Matt Petrie - with the band, Sprig of Ivy, and the eponymous 8x32 reel by the late John Bowie Dickson. The pipes are a bit more prominent here than on »Flights of Fancy« but still do not overpower the rest of the band; they do get a solo spot in the middle so we can appreciate them in full. Finally, the CD finishes with a set of two waltzes composed by Beth Murray, who plays piano with fiddlers Hanneke Cassel and Anne Hooper on the last track.
Well, if you're still reading this after so much prose you may have formed your own impression whether this CD is your cup of tea - but it is difficult to do all the musicians and bands justice without explaining everything in greater detail than one would in a »normal« CD review. The CD is well-produced and, with a total running time of nearly 68 minutes, well-filled. It also contains a 12-page booklet giving details of all the various bands and tunes and some background notes on the music (background notes on the dances are in the dance book) as well as a few comments on the history of the branch.
The Boston dancers must count themselves fortunate to have so many gifted musicians, composers and dance devisers at their disposal. (Some names do crop up again and again, but even so there is so much talent there that we here in musician-starved Germany cannot help but feel a bit jealous.) Like the San Francisco CD, this CD provides music for locally-devised dances published in the companion book (which the Strathspey reviews department will take a closer look at in due course), but even so one might be forgiven for pinching one or the other track to accompany an »any good reel/jig/strathspey« dance found elsewhere. - Summing up, Boston Branch is to be commended for not only publishing a book of dances for their anniversary but also producing a CD with the music. I for one am looking forward to their 75th anniversary!