Kimberley Fraser, with John Whelan |
at the Srour Family House Party,
York, Pa. (8 January 2014)
It was a fortunate meeting of minds.
Since October 2000, I've been a fairly regular guest of the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton --a long way from my home here in Lancaster, Pa. On one such visit, I met the talented Kaitlin Hahn, a Milwaukee-based fiddler who also makes Celtic Colours an annual pilgrimmage. A writer, too, she has since taken up her pen to write up some of the many events there.
And Kaitlin knows Cushla Srour, a New Zealand native and traditional Irish musician who lives in York, Pa. -- some 45 minutes' drive from my house. When Cushla noticed Kaitlin taking notes at a concert last year, she told Cushla about me -- and we connected just in time for an amazing house party at Jim and Cushla's place.
Kimberley Fraser, for those sad unfortunates who are not in the know, is one of Cape Breton's amazing young talents. Not only had she made the trek down to Pennsylvania, but she was joined at Cushla's house by the gifted accordion player John Whelan, who just happened to be passing close by.
It speaks to the talent of both musicians that, although they'd met and interacted at an Irish music camp last summer, they'd never performed together until they got together, maybe an hour before the concert's start, at Cushla's house.
With a crash of glass and a splash of red wine -- OK, that part was an accident, and no, I'm not going to reveal who stained Cushla's white wall -- the concert began.
Kimberley opened the show calmly, with "The Sweetness of Mary," a slow strathspey, which led into some quicker "dancing strathspeys" and a few reels, including "Brenda Stubbert's" and "The Cape Breton Fiddler's Welcome to the Shetland Islands."
"We tend to play a lot of tunes in a big medley like I just did," she tells the gathered crowd. "We tend to go 'til we get tired."
Kimberley plays her left-handed fiddle with her eyes downcast, maybe closed, sometimes smiling and always pounding her foot solidly along with the beat. The next set is jigs, but don't ask me -- or Kimberley, for that matter -- the titles. "I'm not very good with names, so I won't give you a lot of those," she confesses. Then it's a waltz -- Jerry Holland's "Memories of Herbie MacLeod" -- and the "King George" medley of strathspeys and reels.
Now it's time for Kimberley to show her steps, so she dons her shiny shoes, steps onto a hard floor and asks John for some music. Then he's off with a set of tunes, led off by Thomas Walsh's "Inisheer" and another group of reels. It's John's turn to pound the floor as Kimberley mans the piano -- proving once again that a Cape Breton on keys turns any performer into a band.
After a wee break -- do we call it tea? lunch? -- the fiddle and accordion join forces and slam into a set of tunes. Pretty impressive stuff, considering John arrived at 6, ate, helped assemble a coat rack and barely had time to warm up with Kimberley before they were doing a show at 7:30. Their transitions from tune to tune were smooth and seemingly well rehearsed -- just two masters of their craft blending seamlessly on an informal stage.
Kimberley notes that the accordion isn't a common instrument in Cape Breton, where the fiddle reigns supreme and is most often supported by guitar and keyboard.
The next set features just the fiddle and begins with another waltz, "Crossing to Ireland," popularized by Winston Fitzgerald. There were some strathspeys and reels in the mix again -- "We'll see where we end up," Kimberely says. "Most times, I don't usually know." In this case, she ended up on the old-time "Cottonwood Reel." Then there were jigs, followed by another Jerry Holland waltz, "My Cape Breton Home," and more strathspeys and reels. "I don't tend to play a lot of waltzes," Kimberley notes. "You don't hear a lot of waltzes in Cape Breton. But I'm in a bit of a waltzy mood. I hope you don't mind." No one complained.
John had folks in stitches as he explained the genesis of "Trip to Skye," a tune he wrote involving fellow box player Phil Cunningham and a fake black eye. Kimberley hadn't heard the tune before, but by the second rep she was providing a gorgeous harmony on the piano. When John picked up the pace, she went right along with him without hesitation; John, meanwhile, was practically dancing out of his chair.
Cushla herself ended the night by joining the duo on piano for a final fiddle and accordion blast. What tunes did they play? Yeah, I don't know ... but they rocked the house from foundation to eaves with a polished sound that belied their lack of practice time.
It was a great night for music -- plus a treat to see Kimberley again and meet John and the Srours. Apparently this particular house in York is home to an ongoing series of similar events -- something definitely to keep on my radar.
Keep track of the parties involved at kimberleyfraser.com and johnwhelanmusic.com. The Srour family band, Irish Blessing, can be found online at irishblessingband.com.
by Tom Knapp