By Scott Williams



The Way Home

One of the first impressions I had of the CD "The Way Home" featuring the musicians of the group "Road to the Isles" was the purity of the music, which I think is attributable to the complete lack of special effects and even of percussion, both of which in my opinion tend to muddy a lot of recently recorded music with unnecessary background interference. According to George Balderose (see Celtic Heritage, Sept/Oct ‘01) the group was primarily interested in presenting an older style of traditional Scottish and Irish music. I think they succeeded with this CD.

Road to the Isles is an ensemble that was founded by piper George Balderose and flutist Richard Hughes. Balderose began playing the Highland pipes in 1974 and the small pipes a decade later. He has performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and in recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Passionate about traditional folk music, he founded Calliope House, the Pittsburgh Folk Music Society, and the Balmoral School of Piping.

Hughes began performing traditional Irish folk music on wooden flute and tin whistle at Irish dances as a teenager. He performed with 5-string banjo player Walter Scott for 38 years, and for the International Poetry Forum, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Pittsburgh Wind Symphony and in numerous national and regional folk festivals and venues for more than four decades. He can be heard on the 1983 Rounder Records re-issue of "Light Through the Leaves", the first anthology of traditional Irish music in America on wind instruments (Rounder 6014).

Joining Balderose and Hughes is Colyn Fisher on fiddle. An instructor and performer in the Pittsburgh area, Fisher has a degree in violin performance from Wheaton College in Illinois. In 1993 he won the U.S. National Scottish Fiddling Championship in the Junior category and since that time has placed in Junior and Open categories four times. He is an instructor at the Jink and Diddle Summer School of Scottish Fiddle in Valle Crucis, NC.

The CD opens with a set of lively slip jigs that include the well-known tunes "The Rocky Road to Dublin" and "Drops of Brandy". These are followed on Track 2 by a set of Scottish reels – "MacPhee’s Reel", "Malcolm Currie", "The Cuckoo", "The Inver Lasses" and "Buntata Scatan". Here we find a real blend of the old and the new. The first tune was composed by Donald MacPhee in the mid 1800s. "Malcolm Currie" was a Scottish piper who died before World War II. "The Cuckoo" is an old reel that is also known by its Gaelic name, "A Chuachag", and the great 18th century fiddler, Neil Gow composed "The Inver Lasses". The last tune of the set is a recent composition by piper Allan MacDonald of Glenuig.

In Track 3 we get to hear the singing of Richard Hughes for the first time in "The Lark in the Morning". A frequently recorded tune, it is refreshing to hear it sung by Hughes with simple guitar and fiddle accompaniment. Track 4 features a Lowland set that includes "John Anderson My Jo", "Mount Your Baggage" and "Go to Berwick, Johnny". The first is the melody to a Burns song, while the others are Border tunes called double hornpipes.

Colyn Fisher takes the spotlight in the next set of tunes which feature his virtuoso solo violin playing in "Dan Dheirg Dargo", an ancient Gaelic air collected in the Western Highlands and Islands by Patrick and Joseph MacDonald about 1781. The strathspey that follows is J. Scott Skinner’s composition, "The Laird of Drumblair" and the reel, "Turn the Key and Go" is Colyn’s own skilfully crafted tune. Again, this is a clean, single instrument track that can send shivers up the spine.

While Irish marches are not that well-known in this area, I remember hearing the late Pipe Major Bill Magennis playing "Brian Boru’s March" which is followed on this track by "The March of the King of Laois". These are two of the oldest known Irish marches. "Brian Boru’s March", for example, refers to the High King of Ireland who rid the emerald isle of the Vikings during the 10th century.

Richard returns to sing "The Sporting Races of Galway" in Track 7. A witty song, it tells the story of the young men going off to the races for the day. The voice is front and centre with a quiet background accompaniment on guitar. Three strathspeys and a reel follow in track 8. Balderose starts off solo on the small pipes but is soon joined by the violin and flute as the group works its way through this set of dance tunes including "The Keel Row", "What Ails Ye?", "Orange and Blue" and "The High Road to Linton".

In Track 9, Hughes sings the Burns’s song, "Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie" to small pipes and fiddle before adding his flute to the combo to perform "The Atholl Highlanders", which refers to the Duke of Atholl’s private army, the last in Great Britain, that still exists on his Perthshire estates. Balderose then has his moment in the spotlight with solo bagpipe renditions of "The Caber Feidh" played first as a march, then as a strathspey, and finally as a reel. Though the tune has also been arranged as a hornpipe and as a jig, the three manifestations of the piece here are sufficient for one sitting.

The next track has Hughes leading off on flute with the Irish Reel, "Rakish Paddy" followed by yet another version of "Caber Feidh" with Balderose and Fisher joining in with small pipes and fiddle. Hughes sings "Land o’ the Leal" to a tune that resembles closely that to which Burns set "Scots Wha Hae", supported by the chanter and drone of the small pipe and the violin. The Land of the Lean, or Loyal, is, of course, Heaven. Track 13 features some simple, yet very effective hornpipes leading off with "The Highland Laddie" followed by "My Love Is But A Lassie Yet", "The Rakes of Mallow" and "Mairi’s Wedding".

Track 14 once again features a fiddle solo by Colyn Fisher who plays a beautiful version of "The Falls of Foyers". Located near Inverness, Robert Burns once wrote a sonnet extolling the virtues of the cascade. Fisher continues in the next track with a 2/4 march called "The Thin Red Line", the strathspey "Rob Roy MacGregor" and two reels, "Cutty Sark" and "Drowsy Maggie". Hughes returns for his last song, "Erin Go Bragh", followed by Balderose on Highland pipes playing set of tunes that have become very popular in the United States, including "Amazing Grace", "The Minstrel Boy", "The Wearing of the Green" and "Scotland The Brave".

In the penultimate track, it is refreshing to hear a set of jigs played at a tempo where the actual notes can be heard rather than just the rapid-fire rhythmic snapping of fingers striking chanter at an excessively high speed. The tunes include "The Irish Washerwoman", "Paddy’s Leather Breaches" and "The Kesh Jig". The CD comes to a soft and graceful end with a spirited set of Lowland tunes, "Coffee and Tea" and "Wee Totum Fogg", traditional border melodies of some antiquity which were resurrected during the small pipe revival of the 1980s.

So, all in all, you have over an hour of excellent traditional Scottish and Irish music, played in the old, uncluttered style, with something for every musical taste unless of course your taste runs to the overly produced and techno-noise that seems to have found its way onto the Celtic music scene these past few years. If your tastes are like mine, I think you will enjoy a quiet hour with "Road to the Isles" and their new CD, "The Way Home".