Ashley MacIsaac
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Ashley MacIsaac

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Not just second fiddle (excerpt)

OTTAWA FOLK FESTIVAL
Britannia Park, Ottawa
Friday, August 24, 2001

OTTAWA -- The opening night of the Ottawa Folk Festival may have found singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith as the headliner, but his preceding acts were determined not to be upstaged.

Particularly the oft-unpredictable Ashley MacIsaac. Anyone who expected the Cape Breton fiddle wunderkind to break into very unchartered musical territory were probably relieved that his oddball days of yore seemed to have passed.

Having been constantly reminded that he is much better behaved these days, proof positive still had to be witnessed to be believed.

Fortunately the 26-year-old, with accompanying Caper John Allan Cameron on guitar, stuck to what he does best, as he offered up a smorgasbord of fiddle tunes -- King George IV and Southern Melodies immediately come to mind -- which maintained his reign as Cape Breton fiddle genius.

Of course Cameron spent most of the set trying to keep up with young Ashley, on a couple of occasions just giving up in the process.

However, when MacIsaac announced, "J'n Allan, you've got a song you want to sing to the audience?" the whip-smart veteran entertainer took it upon himself to get this sly shot at his playing partner: "I should do a song Ashley's never heard of," he said before launching into Getting Dark Again.

Call Cameron the paternalistic figure, if you will. Except for letting Ashley get away with some bizarre commentary ("Don't mind me, I'm ovulating!"

"Somebody stop me -- and I don't mean the police!"),

Cameron pretty much kept MacIsaac in line.....
- Ian Nathanson


April 23, 2003


Ashley MacIsaac sounds tame during a chat from Dartmouth, N.S.

Despite press in recent years about his stage antics, sexual preferences and financial fiascos, the renowned Cape Breton fiddle phenom comes off dedicated to paving new paths for Celtic music.

Results can be heard during Monday's Cowichan Theatre gig backed by a quartet and a solo opening session by capital bowmaster Daniel Lapp.

MacIsaac's sure to perform songs from his fresh self-tilted CD, including Lay Me Down that's receiving continental airplay.

"Half the tunes in the show are from the new record and Hi, How Are You Today?, plus some regular hoe-down stuff."

His seventh album sports shots of a clean-cut MacIsaac who's apparently living in the moment.

"I don't have much time to be pissed off," he says in a distinct down-East accent.

"I spend all my money on luxury goods so I'm not an angry young man; I'm old. I'm 28.

"My philosophy is just to live it. That's about it."

Media sensationalism is "lots of b.s. that has nothing to with my music."

"You listen to what you want to."

It seems like eons ago that he lifted his kilt on Late Night With Conan O'Brien (1995), and staged an abusive rant at a Y2K rave in Halifax.

Now he's thankful just to move on.

"I've been fortunate enough to meet the Pope and shake the hand of the Queen.

"For all the negative media, there's been more good.

"I'm lucky to have that coverage to sell all the records I've sold."

MacIsaac's also happily riding a wave of Celtic music, chalking up its popularity to the "explosion of Riverdance" and other factors.

"It's ready to become the next big thing like Latin music did."

He's also glad younger players have surfaced including East Coast fiddlers Richard Wood, and MacIsaac's fifth cousin Natalie MacMaster.

"You've go to be a consummate professional to play in Cape Breton. You're only as good as your last gig.

"There's always another fiddle player around," says MacIsaac who began fiddling at age 9.

His instruments are German student models costing around $400 each.

"They have a rich, thick tone and they can handle a good beatin' too."

He pulls no punches about where his creativity comes from.

"Some would say it comes from God, but I just call it imagination."

Twenty years from now? "I don't see myself anywhere except pampering myself somewhere. Hopefully it's not in Pampers," he laughs. "I'm like mint-waxed floss; I feel great."

MacIsaac's band includes bassist John Kanakis, guitarist James Reid, drummer Davide Direnzo, and keyboardist Ron Lopatta.

- Peter Rusland


Monday, April 14, 2003

MacIsaac stuns crowd...with music


The latest phase in the tumultuous career of Cape Breton's Ashley MacIsaac sees the Creignish fiddler land on stage with his faculties intact, backed by a sharp band and playing his heart out.

It sounds so crazy it just might work.

MacIsaac pulled it off on Saturday night at Halifax's Marquee Club, playing in support of his new, self-titled Decca Records release. It was his first public performance here since the release of a pair of traditional CDs two years ago, and his first full band show in the city since the notorious 2000 New Year's Eve rave appearance that derailed a record deal and caused his fans no end of worry for his well-being.

But MacIsaac was welcomed back with open arms on Saturday, and he thanked the crowd for their devotion with an 80-minute set that rocked and reeled with just enough rough edges to keep everyone on their toes.

Sporting a new close-cropped 'do and a Dalhousie hooded sweatshirt - "My new alma mater," he quipped - MacIsaac started solo with Bog An Login, playing the traditional tune with a crisp attack, laying down nimble triplets that kept their shape as the piece picked up in speed and intensity.

Bassist John Kanakis, keyboardist Ron Lopata, guitarist James (Shamus) Reid and drummer Davide DiRenzo came in on John Morrison, "from my Charles Manson album, Helter's Celtic," before MacIsaac took his first vocal turn on an uptempo version of Nick Drake's Cello Song.

Far from aping the melancholy British folkie's dreamy perspective, MacIsaac took a droning approach to his vocal, letting it rise and fall in the mix.

He got a little more emotional for the radio single Lay Me Down, using a world-weary moan to express the song's resignation to love.

As a singer, MacIsaac won't be giving Van Morrison any sleepless nights, and although he turns in some fine singing performances on his latest CD, he's still working on building his vocal strength so he can compete with a full electric band.

MacIsaac seems at ease on the mike, however, so it's probably just a matter of time before his live voice more closely matches what he's done in the studio.

There were still plenty of moments when MacIsaac was content to let his fiddle do the talking, like a deadly duel with Reid's wah-wah guitar on Grapes or a blistering instrumental hoedown, punctuated by ear-piercing war whoops and a cloud of rosin dust flying off his bow.

The crowd had to collectively pick its jaws up off the floor after MacIsaac's second solo spot of the night, starting with a slow air that built into a stunning display of virtuosity with his bow flitting like a hummingbird over the strings in quadruple, quintuple, sextuple time.

But unlike some showboating musicians, he never lost sight of the musicality of what he was doing, even throwing in Big John MacLean and a dash of Farewell to Nova Scotia to appreciative cheers.

Rejoined by his band - "We're Pinocchio and the Gepetto philes," MacIsaac deadpanned - the quintet ripped into a Celtic punk The Devil's in the Kitchen, as Reid pulled at his strings like he was starting a chainsaw, before finishing with Chorus Jig/The King's Reel.

Saturday's show proved MacIsaac is back up to speed as a frontman, while his fiddle playing is not only flawless, it felt effortless as he tossed off impressive figures with Paganini-esque verve.

In the past he's threatened to give up the traditional Cape Breton fiddle style, but let's be grateful he's found a happy medium that allows for all his creative urges to be satisfied.

Although MacIsaac's fiddle-playing sister Lisa didn't get on stage to join him in the song they share on the new CD, the honky-tonk plea Save Me From Tomorrow, her pop-folk duo Mad Violet opened the show with a set of honest, earnest compositions.

With singer/guitarist Brenley MacEachern, the Toronto-based pair breezed through a six-song set that dealt with topics ranging from drug abuse (China Smile) to overwhelming tragedy (Light It Up) with abundant charm and instinctive harmonies.

And while the extreme belly dancing promised on Mad Violet's Web site never materialized, MacIsaac did do some instrumental juggling, often playing fiddle with a Fender Telecaster slung over her back for lightning-quick changes in mid-song. Their music isn't a rampaging fiddle fest, but MacIsaac's sweet playing was a welcome embellishment.

Look for Mad Violet on tour as a full-band unit later in the summer. - Stephen Cooke/ Entertainment Reporter CONCERT REVIEW


Discography

 
1992 Close to the Floor RCA

1995 Hi How Are You Today? A&M

1998 Fine Thank You Very Much RCA

1999 Helter's Celtic Loggerhead

2003 Ashley MacIsaac Decca

Photos

Bio

Ashley MacIsaac was just days into recording his first album in five years when tragedy struck: his prized fiddle, a German Student make -- the same instrument he picked up at age eight, the same one he played throughout his teens, had used on all his recordings, the same one he thrilled audiences with across the globe, the fiddle he knew inside and out – broke apart, right in his hands.

“I literally wore it out,” Ashley wistfully recalls. “The wood had gotten so thin, it just couldn’t be saved. It was gone.” He pauses, then says firmly, “But then I remembered, ‘It’s not the truck, it’s the driver,’ and I was ready to press onward.”

A suitable replacement was found – oddly enough, an exact replica of his German Student make – and an emboldened Ashley charged through the rest of the recording process like a man reborn. The result is Ashley MacIsaac, the Cape Breton wonder’s debut on Decca, a panoramic musical journey that features Ashley’s strongest playing to date, and also sees the famed instrumentalist singing on six(!) cuts.

When Ashley MacIsaac burst on the worldwide scene with 1995’s Hi, How Are You Today? (A&M) he scored the kind of coup instrumental artists often dream of. Going triple-platinum in Canada and breaking down radio barriers with the Gaelic single “Sleepy Maggie,” Ashley became an immediate pop icon, rebellious and exuberant, resplendent in kilts, army boots and combat pants. Copping from rockers’ sensibilities, Ashley made an aesthetic of it onstage, effortlessly blending his Celtic heritage with contemporary elements such as punk, electronica, hip-hop and grunge. Audiences who may have felt alienated by Ashley’s disregard of convention were instantly won over by his dazzling displays of grit, passion and authority. Recalls Ashley at the time, “My father once told me, ‘If you want to play the fiddle, get mad at it or don’t play it at all.’”

Ashley’s follow-up, Fine, Thank You Very Much was a more traditional but no less original outing that delivered on the promise of his debut, and he again blazed through a tour that included a now-notorious appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” during which the obstreperous Ashley flashed the cameras in his kilt. All attempts to pigeonhole Ashley were, by now, futile.

Perhaps it was always that way. Growing up on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Ashley never listened to pop music, with the exception of his brother’s AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne records. Instead, he listened to the recordings of the local master fiddlers like Angus Chisholm, Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald, and Buddy McMaster, who would become Ashley’s dominant influence. Picking up the fiddle at age eight, Ashley immersed himself in the instrument, playing anywhere and everywhere he could. By 14 he was performing at local festivals, pubs, and church and community-hall dances. Soon he was touring Celtic communities in Massachusetts and California, performing with local musicians, and at 16 he recorded 1992’s mostly acoustic-based, traditional “Close To The Floor” album, following it a year later with “A Cape Breton Christmas.” By 18 he had toured nationally with Toronto singer John McDermott and the Chieftains. “I did 160 dates in four months,” he recalls. “I was still in school but I was playing two to four nights a week doing concerts, wakes and funerals.”

Tipped off by his wife, Joanne, who had seen Ashley play at a Cape Breton dance in 1992, veteran avant-garde composer Phillip Glass contacted Ashley to take part in a performance for German playwright George Bruckner’s play “Woyzeck.” From that success Ashley received a call from Paul Simon who asked him to perform on an Edie Brickell session he was producing. Ashley then backed Simon and Brickell at a Carnegie Hall show for the Tibet House Benefit in 1994.

Following a departure from A&M in 1999, Ashley found himself at a personal and professional crossroads. Biding his time, he recorded and independently released “Fiddle Music 101,” an album of traditional fiddle instrumentals made with Halifax fiddler David MacIsaac, and he re-released his 1993 album, “A Cape Breton Christmas.” All the while, he ruminated on what shape his next record would take.

“I knew I had to take a giant step forward and be unafraid and unapologetic about whatever I chose to do. I wanted to make a picture of me at the specific time I was in and I had to let myself be very free to do so. I had to be fluid, and approach the unknown.”

Signed to Decca by then VP of A&R Rory Johnston, Ashley was introduced to Roger Greenwalt (No Doubt, Nils Lofgren), who jumped at the chance to work with Ashley on this bold new adventure. Aside from Ashley’s fiddling, Greenwalt developed all of the instrumentation and electronic loops himself. Tracks like “Cello Song,” “Save Me From Tomorrow,” “Grapes,” and “Captain America” were already in the can when co-producer and mixer Kevin Killen (U2, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello) came on board. With characterist