Review: Bonnie Rideout is nerve center of her Celtic crew

Musicians bring early Christmas to Lawrence

Great musicians don't always play well with others.

Virtuosity can be a lonely gift, after all. It demands the spotlight and recognizes few peers.

Scottish fiddler extraordinaire Bonnie Rideout, however, is the rare talent who amiably performs with a stellar cast and still manages to shine brightest.

Rideout and her Celtic band merrily took to Kansas University's Lied Center stage Friday night, much to the delight of a packed and enthusiastic house. The program, billed as "A Scottish Christmas," was a moody mosaic of traditional Scottish carols, wassail tunes and dance music.

The concert began with a stark rendition of "Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel" on Rideout's solo fiddle. Slowly, members of the musical troupe began to bleed onto the stage, sliding easily into that tune and the next. Seamless and energetic medleys were on tap the entire evening.

Holiday favorite "Greensleeves" ("What Child is This?") was a highlight of the program's first half. The lovely tune perfectly suited Rideout's emotive style, which was showcased throughout the night. However, the group punched things up a notch with rollicking numbers such as "Wassail! Wassail All Over The Town" and "The Jolly Shepherds." Highland dancers Robert McOwen and Jen Schoonover complemented the lively tunes with some traditional, precision footwork.

The show was built around the fiddle, but other instruments -- bagpipes, uilleann pipes, border pipes, clarsach (Celtic harp), bodhran (Celtic frame drum), guitar and voice -- played prominently into the sound and often functioned as soloists. Jerry O'Sullivan displayed considerable dexterity as he switched back and forth between pipe variants, and guitarist Bryan Aspey provided a steady melodic push with his clean technique. Excellent percussionist Matthew Bell showed his versatility by lending sensitive rhythmic support and a show-stopping snare solo.

The concert's scene-stealer award went to harpist William Jackson, whose droll wit won many laughs from the crowd. "I've been called a 'harpoonist' twice since I moved to North Carolina," Jackson said. "Never harmed a whale in my life." The Scottish transplant also lamented the challenges of wearing a kilt while playing the Celtic harp, a large instrument that is positioned between the legs: "When your last name is Jackson, you have to watch out for costume malfunctions," he said. Jackson then proceeded to quiet the amused audience by delivering a gorgeous solo, his nimble fingers plucking out a sweet and lilting melody.

However, despite Jackson and the rest of Rideout's charismatic crew, the nerve center of "A Scottish Christmas" was never in doubt. The show wouldn't have been nearly as much fun without her. Rideout's warm presence is infectious, and her instruments are an elegant extension of her personality. Whether plaintively singing the verses of an ancient Gaelic lullaby, bowing out a colorful lick in "Ale is Dear" or bidding farewell with an all-out encore of "Auld Lang Syne," Rideout treated every note -- and fellow musician -- like an old and dear friend.


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