Alasdair MacCuish & the
Black Rose Ceilidh Band,
Stepping Out
(Macmeanmna, 2002)

Alasdair MacCuish & the Black Rose Ceilidh Band have a tight sound that comes from familiarity. I can't say for sure, but I suspect the musicians have performed together for some time now.

The band features MacCuish on accordion, Scott Gordon on accordion and drums, Alison Smith on fiddle, Russell Hunter on piano, Roy Percy on double bass and Iain "Stretch" MacFadyen on drums and mandolin. For the bulk of the album, the musicians provide the sort of music you'd hear, as the band's name suggests, at a traditional ceilidh. That means rhythms remain fairly constant (to promote dancing) and the lead instruments (typically the accordion and fiddle) reinforce each other on the melody rather than adding harmonies to the mix.

Much of the album relies on Scotland's piping tradition for its source music, and the arrangements are excellent reinterpretations of the tunes into a different Scottish standard. There are fast sets (such as "Ceilidh Cascade," "Hebridean Schottische," "Highland Barn Dance" and "Dunoon Barn Dance") and slower dance tunes (including "Gaelic Waltz" and "St. Bernard's Waltz") to keep variety in the pacing.

MacCuish and his band do a fine job recreating the ceilidh experience. But, truthfully, ceilidh music isn't the most interesting listening experience in the Celtic field. The regularity of the music and the layered arrangement of melody instruments doesn't allow for as much artistic expression or experimentation. If you're looking for straight Scottish dance music, then this is the perfect CD for you; MacCuish and the Black Roses provide flawless samples of this highly disciplined craft. And there's plenty of it, too -- the album clocks in at 72 minutes.

There are a few stand-out tracks that break the mold. "A Flying Trip," for instance, begins with a slow duet for accordion and piano, building into a pair of fast reels, including the MacCuish original "George and Eileen Hunter." "Captain Stretch's Mandolin" matches the mandolin against fiddle for a lilting pair of tunes, including MacFadyen original "Ewan Forfar's Hornpipe," for a nice change from the usual instrumental lineup. "Strip the Willow" and "The Banshee" are crackling good sets, filled with an extra dose of energy.

But it's when MacCuish is joined by several guest musicians -- Chris Stout on fiddle, Taj Wyzgowski on acoustic guitar, Davy Gracie on piano and Karen L. Conner on clarsach (harp) -- that they really shows their chops. It's only four tracks out of 18, but it's a refreshing change in the pattern. From the fast-paced "The Panda" to the sultry "The Swan" and the variable "The Seagull," the musicians show a less uniform approach to the music, expressing a bit of jazzy individuality in their sound. The harp really stands out in "Take It Easy," another MacCuish original, to close the album.

Full marks to the musicians for making ceilidh music sound effortless. For the purist, there's plenty here that will keep your feet moving for hours of dancing. And thanks to MacCuish for slipping a few extras in, too -- those nonstandard tracks break up the sound and keep the whole package flowing.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 2 March 2002