Review: Fiddle flash Ashley MacIsaac trades bad-boy for heartfelt Celtic virtuosity

Celtic-fiddle dynamo Ashley MacIsaac, with bow strings dangling, as he saws through one of many tunes Thursday the Cowichan Theatre. - Andrew Leong
Celtic-fiddle dynamo Ashley MacIsaac, with bow strings dangling, as he saws through one of many tunes Thursday the Cowichan Theatre.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Forget his tabloid scandals and sleazy labels.

Celtic fiddle bad-boy Ashley MacIsaac's morphing into affable, down-to-earth player was ably displayed during Thursday's terrific Cowichan Theatre return.

Some folks may have thought a techie had sauntered on stage for a sound check after a bunch of adept songs by opening trio The Small Town Villains.

But it was McIsaac, cradling that inexpensive instrument.

He made it sound priceless during two sets of down-home and upbeat numbers for 400 fiddleheads.

Rename him Ashley McCeilidh.

"Aw, youse are kind," he said, from under a red RCMP cap, eyes hidden behind shades.

Cowichanians know quality music when they hear it — MacIsaac came to play, between ample samples of witty East Coast banter.

Act one heard patriotic MacIsaac, and guitarist Chris Babineau, deliver The Maple Leaf Forever, the tender Ashokan Farewell (from director Ken Burns' Civil War documentary series), some cartoon numbers from Merry Melodies and the Mocking Bird, lively My Cape Breton Home, and intricate bow wiggling on The Beautiful Lake Ensley.

MacIsaac was just getting warmed-up.

Act two had him and Babineau joined by digital hand-drummer Jay (Sticks) Andrews for a flurry of songs that saw MacIsaac pull a clumps of spent strings from his hot bow.

With his two sidemen, MacIsaac, 38, showed us how he's developed a whole new fiddling sound, rimmed by rap, that he and Sticks are laying down for their looming CLAMO CD.

Most memorable was his new Prince William's Coronation March that's getting a royal arrangement, he explained.

(If this tune's embraced by Kate and Wills, don't be surprised if McIsaac gets knighted.)

Captain America gave us more the jigs and reels that have perhaps made MacIsaac Canada's most famous fiddler, beside cousin Natalie MacMaster, and CBC's Don Messer.

Classy MacIsaac also saluted B.C. bow master Daniel Lapp, iconic East Coast fiddle legend Buddy MacMaster, and other sultans of strings.

Stomping on the theatre's study maple-sprung stage, MacIsaac's vicious violin also hoisted his 2001 hit Lay Me Down, absurdist Looking Glass, Sleepy Maggie, satanic Devil In The Kitchen, singalong Sonny's Song, and even the lightning fast Orange Blossom Special.

Yes, it was quite a night primed by the Small Town Villains that MacIsaac predicted will become "big-town heroes."

Guitarist Malcolm Owen-Flood ,drummer Jordan Finlay, and bassist-trumpeter Cameron Jarvis performed an impressive list of refreshingly listenable, clapable tunes that often hugged minors keys.

From When You Come Home, and I Told You So , to Because I'm Your Son, and Gallows, the STV trio showed why MacIsaac's prophecy might be right.

Friday morning surely left some fans reaching for one of his CDs for a hair of the bow that bit them.

Celtic-fiddling concert rating: 9.5 jigs out of 10.

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