Catriona MacDonald:
a rose among thorns

Catriona MacDonald balked when asked for an interview late one evening at the Festival Club, the nightly cap to the wealth of entertainments at the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton. Leery of yet another question-and-answer session where she'd be asked for old news -- such as "When did you first pick up a fiddle?" -- she was ready to duck for the nearest exit. It was only after being promised a series of hard to answer and potentially embarrassing questions that the young Shetland fiddler consented.

Then she disappeared for several days, and I began to fear Catriona had fled the country after all -- but no, she soon reappeared, refreshed after some time away from the center of activity. And, true to her word, she found a semi-quiet corner in the Great Hall of the Clans and explained why she's the only rose on a stage full of thorns known collectively as the Blazin' Fiddles.

"Originally, I wasn't supposed to be the only girl," she explained. Formed for a one-off tour, the Blazers was going to include Orkney fiddler Jennifer Wrigley on the bill -- until Wrigley was forced to withdraw for another commitment. "She missed the boat -- or had a lucky escape," Catriona said.

Meanwhile, the one-tour-only band was getting a grand reception wherever it played, and with gig offers pouring in, the fiddle troupe decided to make a more permanent arrangement. "We could all see there was a chemistry then," she recalled. "We would have a wee little festival wherever we went."

Which brought up the subject of traveling with a band full of men. "I never find it a problem," Catriona said, with what can only be described as a wicked grin.

"I come from Shetland, which is a pretty wild place," she said. "The women in Shetland can drink and play as hard as anyone else. And besides, I don't mind -- I get to see all those gorgeous Highland men in the dressing room all the time." (For the record, she added: "They're perfect gentlemen.")

Neither is Catriona worried that her Shetland stamina will show up the men. "Once we're on a tear, we're all in," she said. "No one falls off."

On stage, on the other hand, "amongst all the boys I look pretty calm. My style is smooth, a bit of serene among all the mayhem."

But if anyone has ever watched Catriona among the rest of the Blazers -- and who wouldn't, given the chance? -- they'd notice that she plays with a look of repressed laughter, as if there's something hugely funny happening that the rest of us have missed. And that's often the case, she admitted.

"After seven years in a band, every night has something different," she said. "The small things keep it alive. And if anybody plays a mistake, the whole band will be looking at them."

If that's not enough, Catriona stands beside Bruce MacGregor, who often fiddles as if in the midst of a seizure, twisting and contorting in fits. "I look at him and think, 'Your back is going to go someday, and I'm going to laugh when it does.'"

OK, so let's talk about the group dynamics, and the problem of arranging tunes for five talented fiddlers (besides Catriona and Bruce, they are Allan Henderson, Iain MacFarlane and Aidan O'Rourke) and two accompanists (pianist Andy Thornburn and guitarist Marc Clement) without treading on sensitive toes.

"In our shows, everyone takes a solo," Catriona explained. "When it comes to the bigger pieces, some people find the bass line, others fine the harmony and others play the melody. ... If it was all in unison, it'd be dead boring after a while. Besides, if you find your own frequency in the spectrum, you can't hear yourself."

The band doesn't usually sit down and devise arrangements when new tunes enter their repertoire, she added. They sit down and jam, and see where it goes. "You can definitely tell when it's working."

They can also tell when it's not. "There's a look we give one another that says, 'Do that again and you're dead.'"

Everyone in the band juggles various solo and group projects that take up their time, Catriona said. But Blazin' Fiddles is their first priority -- and that makes scheduling easier. "Other projects come second," she said. "Otherwise, there's no way we could get together." Besides, she said, Blazer tours total only about two months per year, leaving plenty of time for other musical ventures.

The Blazers also change things up from show to show, just to keep it interesting.

"We're not competing," she said. "You might play the flash solo one night, another you might do something a little subtler."

And then there are the egos involved.

"It'd be stupid to say there aren't egos," Catriona readily conceded. "Anyone who watches can see there's something in the air. But it's not a negative thing. It helps to keep our standards up."

by Tom Knapp
5 November 2005