By Roland Sturm

Celtic Fiddle Festival - Live in BrittanyThe Celtic Fiddle Festival, a group of three fiddlers representing different “celtic” styles, just celebrated its 20th anniversary with a tour and live CD. It is the group’s 6th CD. They did not make it to Southern California on their US tour - the SF Bay Area was as close as they came - but the CD is a fine substitute and allows for a repeated experience.

The original idea of the Celtic Fiddle Festival was to showcase different, yet related, fiddle styles and explore their historic connection. The initial group included Kevin Burke (representing Irish fiddle), Johnny Cunningham (Scotland), and Christian Lemaître (Britanny, France). After Johnny Cunningham died in 2003, his place was taken by André Brunet (Quebec, Canada). On their tours and recordings, they have been joined by a number of different accompanists over the years, most recently – and on this CD Nicolas Quemener from Brittany.

Live in Brittany was recorded in 2013 in the Breton town of Guémené-sur-Scorff, where Quemener lives. Here is a video from a concert in that town that became the first track on the CD:

Celtic Fiddle Festival 'Gavottes Swing'

All the tracks are instrumental, just as on their prior CDs. The sound quality of this live recording is much better than the video, of course, but it comes from an amplified live performance. The fiddles sound fine, but the guitar on the solo is noticeably anemic. On a typical speaker system, it won’t matter, but generally the sound quality is not up to the standard of a studio CD. Editing is also a bit rough and particularly annoying to me is that there is applause added, including right at the beginning. Fortunately, it isn’t overdone and at least the volume of the applause (even when it is real at the end of sets, not added on) is turned down a bit relative to the music.

The playing is excellent and you do get a sense of the different styles. The concept of the Celtic Fiddle Festival certainly works.

Kevin Burke is probably the best known of the group and has the fluid and ornamented County Sligo style. He was a member of several seminal Irish supergroups, including the Bothy Band and Patrick Street, and a number of seminal solo CDs. Christian Lemaître is from Brittany, the Celtic region in northwest France. Fiddle is not a common instrument and he was in that respect a pioneer in translating Breton music to the fiddle. His style and repertoire shows influences from Southern and Eastern Europe as well, so if you look for traditional “purity,” it won’t be him. André Brunet is a very energetic fiddle player from the Québec, the predominantly French speaking region of Canada and it is clear on the CD that he adds much of the energy to the group. Part of that is that he also doubles as the percussionist with foot stamping. This actually is a key component in the Quebecois style and discussed a more in the recent CD review of his own band De Temp Antan . Finally, Nicholas Quemener is the accompanist on the CD and the tour. He lives in Brittany and is a bandmate of Lemaître in the group Kornog.

My personal favorites on the CD are Kevin Burke’s sets, but that is just my own stylistic preference (I also have about all of his solo CDs). What makes the Celtic Fiddle Festival special is the mix of styles. If you like the group, this is certainly a recording worth getting. However, if you are new to them, maybe one of the studio recordings would be a better start and their very first one from 1993 is hard to beat.

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.