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ROSS COUPER & TOM OAKES - Fiddle & Guitar 

ROSS COUPER & TOM OAKES - Fiddle & Guitar 
Haystack Records HAYCD009 

From opposite ends of the British Isles, meeting up in Newcastle and then both gravitating towards Edinburgh, this pair has established a reputation in Auld Reekie as outstanding musicians and lovable rogues - or at least rogues. Shetland fiddler Ross Couper is a real master of his art, joining young all-stars Bodega and more recently the legendary Peatbog Faeries. Devonian Tom Oakes sounds like a petrified forest but is actually a multi-instrumentalist, best known for his Irish style flute and also a very fine accompanist: here he plays guitar as both backing and melody instrument. Both players are also prolific composers, and there are a folk fiddler's dozen of their tunes here: six by Tom and five by Ross. In fact, only one piece on this album is truly ‘trad’: the rest were written in living memory by MacDonalds, Cunninghams, Morrisons, Spences, and the more far-flung names of Lanctot, Borsheim and Skrede.

Having collaborated for over a decade, Oakes and Couper didn't rush their debut recording. In fact, they managed to organise a winter music school before releasing an album, and they are held in such high esteem that the Celtic Connections International Festival invited them to preview the release at a concert in January 2017 - which happily meant that they did actually have to make this CD. They've chosen a wide range of tunes, not just the frantic fired-up dance music they are rightly famous for. Starting with Allan MacDonald's gentle Road To Loch Nam Bairneas with surprisingly delicate bowing, the duo makes a rock anthem of Cathcart which surely is not how Phil Cunningham sees this Glasgow faubourg. Just before Ross gets carried away, they switch into Viðar Skrede's Apo Fetlar Top, one of the more exuberant pieces here. After a set of searing reels from Shetland, Canada and Ireland, a pair of graceful tunes on fingerpicked guitar and lyrical fiddle provides a pause before a big set of grinding earthy compositions gives the fiddler a chance to strut his stuff on his own Strictly Sambuca and Peter Morrison's pipe reel, Room 215.

Something For The Weakened is much in demand after a session with this pair: whether it's Irn Bru or more Sambuca is a matter of taste, or the lack of it, but this slow reel is another chance to draw breath before the pink elephants are on the march again. Tom's polska-like Sólarlag leads into the genteelly-named Sunburn whose full title reminds me of the prisoner's cry from Monty Python's Life Of Brian: "Worse? How could it possibly be worse?!" Tasty picking on these slip jigs brings us to a guitar showpiece, The Last Gasp, the only place where the fiddle doesn't seem totally at ease. Normal service is resumed on the final set of reels, Ross's own take on a great French Canadian tune, followed by two Couper and Oakes compositions with their combination of funky guitar and flash fiddling, exhausting and energising in parallel.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 119 of The Living Tradition magazine.