Glenn Graham,
Step Outside
(Bowbeat, 2000)

This recording from Glenn Graham is everything a good fiddle album should be, and more. It succeeds in holding the listener's attention from start to finish with its collection of fast-paced, energetic tunes interspersed with some equally impressive songs. It's easy to see why Graham was chosen for a showcase at this years East Coast Music Awards. Although mainly an album of traditional and more modern Cape Breton-style fiddle tunes, it also contains a few songs which could fall into either a pop or country category, and one that wouldn't be out of place on the dance floor of a techno club.

Cape Breton Island is one of the hotspots in Canada for fiddle music, probably sporting the most fiddles per capita in the country. Graham grew up in Judique, steeped in such musical traditions, and coming from a long line of fiddler, dancers, pipers and Gaelic singers. All of the songs and many of the tunes on the album are composed by Graham, with his fiddling taking centre stage. He also provides vocals and some dance steps, and is ably joined by his sister, Amy Graham, in this regard. Gordie Sampson lends his talents on guitars, piano and vocals. Mac Morin plays piano and strings, and joins Graham for a few steps, while Matthew Foulds (drums, percussion and keyboards) and Patrick Gillis (acoustic guitar) round out the regulars.

The first track begins with a rather quiet introduction, then hits the listener with a positively energetic jig, moving into two even more lively reels. I like the percussion on this track, and the electric guitar adds to the energy generated from the set. This energy is present throughout the recording, making for a very danceable album. In fact, I had a little trouble with the actual writing of this review -- I couldn't sit still long enough to type!

On a lot of albums I've listened to, artists will begin some really great tunes, but as it progresses the tunes continue to get weaker, as if they're running out of ideas. Not so with this one. The second track changes tone a bit, with Amy Graham taking over the spotlight, but it's far from being weak. Amy has a lovely voice -- rich, strong and very expressive -- which sounds as though it would be well suited to country music. "Tomorrow" could fall into that category, or perhaps be heard on a pop radio station.

Next, with "Lost," we're back to a set of tunes, beginning with an air written by Graham. I love the tune (although I find that Graham's fiddling style is more suited to the faster tunes, which the rest of the set provides with another lively set of reels). I also like the piano accompaniment, with its traditional Cape Breton style, not to mention Graham's accented, rhythmic and very danceable style of fiddling. On the next track, "Whispers from Heaven" (my favorite song on the album), Graham shows that, like his sister, he can sing. The two Grahams make a wonderful duo -- they both have expressive, natural sounding voices which harmonize well together, making Graham's moving lyrics come to life.

And on and on it goes with this album -- the good tunes just never stop flowing -- but I don't want to write a book about it. There's a great set of jigs, with Howie MacDonald on piano, two toe-tapping sets of strathspeys and reels in different Cape Breton styles, another slightly pop-like song featuring Amy's vocal talents, and a fantastic, flying-out-of-my-chair set with a march, strathspeys and reels for the finale.

The jury's still out on "Little Donald's Wife," a techno-type song found squished between the jigs and the strathspey/reel sets. This song is based on a traditional tune, and the actual lyrics come close to sounding traditional, but the arrangement is in a dance style -- and I'm not talking about stepdancing, even though there is some stepdancing on the track. I like the fiddle tunes in the chorus, and this is probably the closest I'll ever come to liking "club" music, but it's not really my kind of thing. Perhaps I'm just an old fogey ... it may help to introduce a younger crowd to traditional tunes, at any rate.

Step Outside has definitely earned its spot in my prestigious travellin' case and, in fact, has already made its way into my car's CD player several times (another reason why it was hard to get the review done). Glenn Graham is a talented individual -- his compositions, arrangements, lyrics and driven fiddling are all outstanding -- and the resulting package is an energetic album with a solid mix of songs and tunes that I just can't get enough of.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]