Samantha Robichaud,
Just Being Me
(self-produced, 1999)
Twistin' the Bow
(self-produced, 2001)

It's always a pleasure to discover a new and talented fiddler. It's astonishing when that fiddler is as young as Samantha Robichaud.

Samantha (a.k.a. Fiddlin' Sam) was only 10 years old when she recorded her first album, Hitting the Notes. Just Being Me followed at age 12, and Twistin' the Bow, her latest, was released at the ripe old age of 14. Of course, we've come to expect greatness from East Coast fiddlers, but this New Brunswick sensation was already competing successfully at age 4 -- that's before the average kid begins kindergarten or even begins to consider the musical possibilities beyond Sesame Street and that dreaded purple dinosaur.

Well, Sam has certainly honed her talents at an early age. While I haven't heard her first CD, I can promise you that her second and third show incredible adeptness and maturity. Not only that, but when you compare the two side by side, you can hear evidence of her musical growth over the intervening two years.

Just Being Me is the more traditional of the two albums. Packed with 14 instrumental sets, it draws heavily on the Celtic- and French-inflected traditions of the Canadian Maritimes. Much of the recording is suitable for dance sets, with tracks including "Tam Lyn/Mason's Apron/Welcome to the Shetland Islands," "Don Messer's Breakdown/Mother's Reel/Johnny Wagner," "Halifax County Hornpipe/Ontario Swing" and "Coming Home/Ralphy's Jig" (by fellow Canadian April Verch).

Sam's playing is precise, lively and fun -- you never get the sense she's playing for any reason beyond her own enjoyment of the craft. The instrumentation is fairly standard, with Sam providing fiddle and, on one track, foot percussion. She tosses a rag and some swing into the mix, for variety's sake -- plus, smack dab in the middle of the CD, a fiddle arrangement of the big-band classic "In the Mood," enhanced with a bit of apt but unexpected saxophone.

With her third release, Twistin' the Bow, Sam shows she has developed a sense of nontraditional style all her own -- much of which pulls inspiration from the pop-heavy sounds favored by your average teen. The disc kicks into a infectiously danceable interpretation of "Sherbrooke Reel," which jams with enough electronics and kit percussion to lure in the younger set even as Sam's amazing chops on the traditional tune keep the purists contented. The track also supplies our first hint of Sam's vocal abilities; more on that later.

The album backpedals after that, sticking with traditional instrumentation on a good many tracks. But don't think that means Sam has retreated to the safe terrority of her previous recordings. There is very little traditional material in this set-list and there are still several pop-influenced tracks to be found in the mix. There are a lot of pleasant surprises on the album, like the jammin' "Y2K Calypso," "Twelfth Street Rag," an energized "Reel Beatrice," "Swinging with the Eighties" and the frantic title track, co-written by Sam with Ivan Hicks.

Sam's playing is also more vibrant on this recording, demonstrating a wild fierceness that never slips in intonation. The album as a whole is fresh and invigorating. Then, to close the disc, she gives us a full taste of her vocal abilities with "Willy," a Kelly Trottier song about an old fiddle teacher. Sam's voice is sweet enough to make it entertaining; I suspect with maturity and practice her voice will become even stronger.

Sam is young and, as these two CDs prove, extremely talented. It's a pleasure to anticipate the long musical career ahead of her, assuming she continues to follow this path. Things can only get better as her skill and experience increases.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002