Tuesday, January 22, 2013


One of the things I like about the Canadian folk scene is that its ahead of the curve, forward-thinking, and not stuck up its own past.  British folk is forever in a battle over keeping it traditional, and anyone breaking the mold gets nudged out into the popular world.  Americans think folk is about guitar players and Greenwich Village, still confused which category Bob Dylan fits.  Then they hear a fiddle and call it bluegrass.  Oh don't mind me, I'm just cranky.  Anyway, Canada, forward-thinking folk that we are, have these musicians always trying out new stuff, creating new groups, and the best thing is, they get slapped on the back and celebrated for it, nearly right away.  Take The Fretless, for example.  They've only been a group since 2011, just have this one album, Waterbound, and it won them the Instrumental Group of the Year, and the Ensemble of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Folk Music Awards this past November in Saint John, NB.  And I'm going, who the frig are The Fretless?

They are four young string players (three violins, one cello), based out of Vancouver Island.  Classically trained, the four came together with a purpose:  to take fiddle and folk tunes, and re-imagine them in a string quartet setting, losing none of the fun and energy, but incorporating the sophistication and multiple parts.  Think of the difference between one voice and four; that's what the quarter does to a fiddle tune.  It's not high brow, you'll recognize the styles and melodies if you're a fan of Celtic and old-time.  But you've never heard soar so much, and never heard so many ideas flying about.  The intricate arrangements are a joy as each new part is weaved in.  And of course, the playing is impeccable.  Each member is an accomplished performer already:  violinists Trent Freeman, Ivonne Hernandez and Karrnnel Sawitsky (all also double on viola), and cellist Eric Wright.

Genres come and go so fast, they mean little in the final scheme, a tribute to the new creations by this group.  There are touches of classical, jazz, and every form of fiddle tune, echoes of Cape Breton and Quebec and the Appalachians.  Modern and classical techniques are welcome, but standard usage is not.  Even ballads are filled with contagious energy.  While none of the group sing here (Hernandez does on tour), there are two vocal tunes, featuring guests Ruth Moody and Norah Rendell.  Both have echoes of the mountains in them, lonesome numbers from tough times.  Title cut Waterbound is from the mighty pen of roots star Dirk Powell, a favourite of T-Bone Burnett, and its one of his best numbers, mysterious and mixing old-time and new folk.  Moody's vocal is as sublime as the string playing.  Rendell has a Irish voice, and her Harder To Walk These Days Than Run is a joy, matching the violins trill for trill for thrill.

I hope I've at least piqued your curiosity, it's awfully hard to describe the overall beauty of this disc, hearing is believing.  The group is already sparking up the festival circuit, and the magic is here right now.

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