Robin Flower & Libby McLaren,
Steelhead in the Riffles
(Little Cat, 2004)

This CD is so close to the traditional music style in Cape Breton that I fell in love with it at first listen. Even so, its Californian sparkle makes it unique in the world of Celtic music.

Steelhead in the Riffles is full of upbeat gems, high energy and a raft of wonderful music. The first fiddle and piano set gathers for an upbeat tempo, and the titles -- "Sue's Delight," "Patsy's Pitchers" and "Steelhead in the Riffles" -- are lively. The piano is an amazing complement to the fiddle.

"Billy Tave's Hornpipe" sounds traditional and the arrangements are quick and smooth. There's no urge to toe-tap or knee-hump while listening, but the cuts offer a sense of bounce that is familiar and satisfying. "Molly's Step Dance" sounds like something you'd hear in any little hall across Cape Breton Island, until the second part starts up to make the sound a little fuller. Then there's the "Jig for Judith" and "Rosemary's Real Jig" -- both are full-bodied and memorable.

These two ladies shamelessly indulged in a musical trip to Ireland before making this CD, and that might explain how some of the music is reminiscent of Cape Breton; if we take the musical tree back far enough there's sure to be Irish in the Scottish blend, or vice versa. Libby McLaren and Robin Flower gathered up their newfound treasures and created brand new ones to share with us and I was completely taken in by the traditional sound of their music partnered with a few modern twists.

Most of the tunes are written by the pair. They've included four that they didn't write: "Over the Moor to Maggie," "Piper's Despair," "Bank of Ireland" and "Morning Dew." They're assisted on the CD by Jan Martinelli's bass, Brian Rice on percussion and Barbara Higbie on hammered dulcimer. Flower plays mandolin, fiddle and guitar while McLaren plays a mean piano and accordion, and adds a mountainish voice to one tune.

A light but masterful touch brings the best from their instruments. The music fairly flies at times but with a controlled essence that carries you along. The music lifts and flows, there are no slips and breaks.

An interesting aside in the liner notes is a sponsor for each tune. I'm not sure how that works, but it's an interesting idea. They appear to be part of a musical community that is very supportive and creative.

I think it's time Flower and McLaren made a trip to Cape Breton. I'd like to hear them in person and if the Celtic Colours Festival folks are reading this, hint, hint.

On their website, they talk about house concerts, a kicking old idea that's never really died out in Cape Breton (only there's no cover charge in here). I'd like to check out the family tree of these ladies, since a lot of Cape Bretoners went west to California years ago, and I like to think they might just belong to us. But even if they don't, they are inspiring folk musicians and this CD has a special place in my collection.

by Virginia MacIsaac
22 April 2006

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