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rhythmnreel Celtic Rock

Celtic rockers' first CD was a long time coming

Published:  19 June, 2009

RHYTHM 'n' Reel may blend traditional and contemporary material, but the band which launches its debut album, "The Crossing", at the Ironworks tomorrow has its origins in a rather different sort of rock group. "It came out of the mountain rescue team," guitarist Stuart Macdonald revealed. "A few of the team members would go along to meetings and started jamming together. That's why the music is so diverse — being in the mountain rescue team was the only thing they had in common. We had a fiddle player, one guy played the bagpipes, other guys were more into rock. We started out just doing it for a laugh, but then we started out playing in pubs and other mountain rescue teams started asking us to do things and it all grew from there."

Macdonald and bass player Mike Brown are the only members of the band remaining from those days, with Brown the only one still active in mountain rescue. Though the eight-piece group has seen several line-up changes over almost two decades, the current — and by their own admission, rather large — complement has been fairly steady over the last couple of years.

"I suppose we're unusual in that we have three fiddlers," Brown commented.

"Generally we only have one of them out at any one time — it's a job-share. But at bigger gigs we have all three and it makes quite a sound."

Usually seen as a six-piece, Rhythm 'n' Reel's blend of Celtic rock and contemporary original songs and covers has been in demand for music festivals, Highland games, gala dances and venues of all sizes not just in Scotland but overseas. RnR makes annual trips to Germany and The Netherlands and has shows lined up in Switzerland in November.

"We just enjoy playing the music ourselves," Brown said.

"We like doing traditional stuff rocked up a bit more, taking some tunes and rocking them up with the pipes and fiddles."

It may be a bit bigger than the average outfit, but that is no bad thing for Macdonald.

"I like to see a big band," he said. "There's more intensity to it."

Most often to be seen around the Highlands and Islands, the band also pops up elsewhere in Scotland. Next month will see them open the Wickerman Festival in Dundrennan in the south west, though they will also be playing closer to home at the opening day of the Belladrum Festival in August.

"We get away as much as we can, but it's difficult because we are not full-time, though one or two of the guys in the band are full-time musicians because they do other things," Brown said.

One of the full-timers is piper and accordion player Catriona MacAffer, who comes from a family of pipers and has won competitive medals at the Mod and Cowal Games. Now a music teacher, she regularly travels from Glasgow to be with the band.

She is one of the principal arrangers of the band's music, along with fiddle player and tutor Debbie Ross, a former member of the Easter Ross band Coinneach.

The other members of the group are fiddlers Gillian Stevenson and Paul Dzialdowski, drummer Donnie MacKillop and guitarist and singer Dave Fleming.

Despite having been around the scene for a few years, ever since the original members were inspired to form a band by seeing The Waterboys in a tent in Ullapool at the start of the 1990s, the group had never made an album until now, though they had produced a couple of EPs.

"We used Tulloch Castle in Dingwall because we wanted to keep the live feel of the band. We didn't want it to sound too clinical," Brown revealed.

"We approached it much as we would a live show and put down two or three instruments at a time to get that live sound."

Recorded over the course of last winter, with overdubs done on Skye, "The Crossing" contains an original Dave Fleming song, others borrowed from artists like Neil Young and Steve Earle, and instrumental sets, one combining traditional reels with a touch of Jimi Hendrix.

Brown added that the material was chosen to reflect the group's strengths as a live band, but has already received airplay from MFR and Isles FM. Glasgow-based internet station Celtic Music FM is making it their album of the week.

And despite drawing on musicians from the rock and traditional worlds, the band seems to have found a way of making things work.

"We've found a way of doing things," Macdonald said. "The only issue is the volume of the rock side. You'd never think you'd be able to drown out a set of bagpipes, but on some things we do."

rhythmnreel Celtic Rock