Not so long ago, old-time music was mostly the province of urban refugees living the pastoral dream in rural New England. But it's benefited from a modest yet definite revival. The twenty-something California singer and instrumentalist Frank Fairfield, who looks as though he stepped off a small-town Southern stage a hundred years ago, was one of the hits of this year's Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and groups like the Kalamazoo duo Red Tail Ring are offering innovative takes on traditional music. The Canadian fiddler April Verch, who comes to the Ark with the two other members of her band on April 4, is a marvelous player who helped get the revival underway.
Verch is one of those musicians who become so deeply immersed in one specific style that they are able to look outward and master others without much difficulty. She comes from the Ottawa River valley in northeastern Ontario, remote lumbering country that has its own distinctive fiddle style. On YouTube you can hear her demonstrate the differences among four Canadian fiddle styles--old-time, Ottawa Valley, Metis, and Maritime--and that was all before she took up bluegrass and other American styles. Verch has the gravity of an aware tradition bearer, but there's nothing didactically folky in her playing. There's emotion in everything she does, and she shapes different kinds of tunes, and a few songs, into a program that hangs together over an hour and a half.
She started playing the fiddle at six, but she started step dancing at three, and that's where things enter really rarefied territory. I haven't seen the great step dancers of Ireland, but Verch must be really hard to top. Her step dance solos are little ballets in which her movements and the unthinkable rhythms coming from her feet coordinate to generate climaxes that make people stand up and cheer. She dances while backing up, and while playing the fiddle, the latter an unusual talent indeed. "I have to not think about
it," she has said. "I have to put both things on automatic pilot."
Verch attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and rubbed elbows with a lot of musicians there, but perhaps the most important thing she learned was that old-time music wasn't always old-time, and that being sexy while playing it is not a crime. If you like Natalie MacMaster, who hasn't been heard much lately around here, be aware that Verch is the best Canadian traditional musician to come along since MacMaster held the stage at the Summer Festival in the 1990s. She's been ahead of the curve in the current old-time efflorescence, and her talents are still developing as she encounters musicians from other traditions. A rare pleasure is in store.
[Originally published in April, 2013.]