Howie MacDonald
& Ashley MacIsaac,
(self-produced, 2001)

If you've never had the opportunity to see Cape Breton talents Howie MacDonald and Ashley MacIsaac in a live performance, this recording may well be the next best thing. Produced by MacDonald from eight tapes of live material, the listener is treated to 59 minutes of pure Cape Breton energy. From sets of reels to medley sets including strathspeys, jigs and hornpipes, the duo certainly keeps things hopping. I can't imagine someone actually listening to this album without moving or tapping at least something!

Although the album is produced from live recordings, it is not "live," per se. MacDonald has added in guitar and some fiddle in the studio, while leaving the rest (including audience responses) as is. The result is a great-sounding recording with the intensity of a typical live MacDonald/MacIsaac performance and slightly modified instrumentation.

Some might argue that it is somehow "cheating" to add studio instrumentation to an otherwise live recording, and perhaps it is. However, I think in this case, MacDonald has done justice to the original material. Having heard the pair play together live several times, I think that the recording is quite characteristic. Often in a live show, the two will swap positions on piano/fiddle for a bit, abandon the piano entirely to play harmonies, take a break from their instruments to stepdance, or pick up another instrument for a set. MacDonald may have added a few "extras," but nothing that you couldn't hear live from them on any given occasion. Besides, the added bits are good, and add even more brilliance to the already zippy sets.

The original live performances generally featured MacIsaac on fiddle, MacDonald on piano and Matthew Foulds on percussion, while MacDonald has added his guitar and fiddle in some places. Kudos to MacDonald, too, for the way he has added his instrumentation -- it is hard to tell what was originally there, and what was added. (Indeed, I had to ask him!)

As for the music itself, there's not much to say about it besides "Two thumbs up!" The sets blend together well and seem to go on forever! I love the fiddle harmonies that MacDonald has added, and of course MacIsaac's original fiddle is excellent to begin with. MacDonald is wonderful on the piano -- full of energy and variation -- and Foulds provides unfaltering percussion for the lengthy sets. With the skeleton recordings being live, one can also hear the stomping feet of the musicians, which adds another dimension to the character and rhythm.

There are a couple of shorter sets included, but the rest of the sets range from 8 to 18 minutes. Yes, that's 18 minutes ... and that's not even the whole set! The listener is left wanting more when the final track of the album cuts off midway through the 17th reel. (Apparently, the tape ran out, and the set actually went on for another good 10 minutes or so.)

The album makes a fitting tribute to the memory of John Morris Rankin, a Cape Breton musician who died tragically in a car accident last year. Rankin was a fixture on Cape Breton's music scene and frequently played with both MacIsaac and MacDonald, where energetic sets such as these were commonplace.

I would highly recommend this album to anyone who has had a taste of Ashley MacIsaac and Howie MacDonald and found their mouths watering for more -- you can have your own personal performance in the privacy of your home or car any time you want. Yes, indeed ... this one's a keeper!

[ by Cheryl Turner ]
Rambles: 20 August 2001

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