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SNUFF BOX - Playing For Free 

SNUFF BOX - Playing For Free 
Skye Records SRCDX004

Bright, brash and bouncy, this young trio has emerged almost fully formed from the crucible of Clydeside sessions and is busily sanding off the rough edges of a very exciting sound. The opening set of reels underscores their traditional pedigree: popular compositions by Liz Carroll and Phil Cunningham sandwich the old Johnny Willmott's Fiddle. The album's title track is the first of many original works, a flowing piece written more in resignation than resentment at the commercial realities of life as a traditional musician. Limerick is one of my favourite tracks here, two powerful old Irish jigs given a real workout on fiddle and cello. Whistle O'er The Lave O't is another traditional gem with fine lead and harmony playing on fiddle, cello and guitar.

So, who are these brazen young bucks? Fiddler Charlie Stewart is the current Scottish Young Traditional Musician of the Year: from Perthshire, he plays the rhythmic and demanding music of North-East Scotland, as well as the more fluid Irish style and contemporary fiddling. Rufus Huggan adds cello in a combination of folk and classical modes, following in the footsteps of Natalie Haas, Wendy Weatherby and others - in fact there are so many people playing cello in Scottish music now that it's almost unremarkable. Rufus leans towards melody and harmony rather than rhythm, at least on this recording. The Snuff Box beat is set and sustained by guitarist Luc McNally, whose duo album with Eddie Seaman I recently reviewed: as well as backing up the tunes, Luc sings two songs here, both written by Rufus and delivered with surprising skill.

Lucy's Lament is a lovely slow air by Huggan, leading into Lauren MacColl's frenzied Feis Rois 25, before another Phil Cunningham tune in the shape of A Harsh FebruaryDown The River is the first of those two songs, and is frankly a bit weird, with a worrying juvenile death toll. The other song is more palatable, the gentle Sleeping Stars where Rufus provides exquisite cello accompaniment. In between the two vocal tracks are a Gow-infused slow air by Charlie and a simply stunning pair of tunes by Huggan and Stewart which revel in the title, Yer Maw's. What with one thing and another, Playing For Free is definitely sneaking onto the shortlist for my 2017 Top Ten. 

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 120 of The Living Tradition magazine.