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REVIEW: Orkney fiddler Louise Bichan wows Foundry crowd in West Stockbridge

Bichan's writing is full of clever twists and turns, unexpected key changes, and intricate ensemble figures that, together, seem at times to reflect jazz influences.

West Stockbridge — Orkney fiddler Louise Bichan seemed taken aback by the uproar that ensued at the conclusion of her band’s very first number at The Foundry on the evening of Saturday, May 11. You would have thought The Foundry crowd was calling her back for an encore (which it did, about two hours later). It would seem Ms. Bichan had underestimated the extent of her following in the Berkshires. Perhaps she didn’t realize that a phalanx of fiddle players from Erika Ludwig’s Fiddling Fems had positioned themselves in the front row, where they could (and did) forcefully cheer the musicians on.

You would think she would be well accustomed to this kind of treatment, having performed for large crowds at the Celtic Connections Festival, Hebridean Celtic Festival,
Belladrum Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Shetland Folk Festival, and Orkney Folk Festival, not to mention the Sligo Live Festival in Ireland. Far from the British Isles, she has appeared at the Tønder Festival in Denmark; the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto; the Lorient Interceltique Festival in France; and, in the U.S., the Rochester International Jazz Festival, Milwaukee Irish Festival, Red Wing Roots Music Festival, and the Freshgrass Festival just up the road in North Adams, Mass.

Bichan is currently touring in support of her new album “The Lost Summer,” and a good portion of her set consisted of material from that release. When she plays smaller venues, Ms. Bichan sets up a projector that runs a video show of Orkney landscapes throughout her performance. It’s all footage she captured herself, and the way it complements her music and stories makes for a rich, immersive listening experience.

Accompanying Ms. Bichan on Saturday were Brendan Hearn on cello, Ethan Setiawan on mandolins, and Conor Hearn on guitar. Their instruments, along with Ms. Bichan’s fiddle, were equipped with pickups, which made it possible to get a full-bodied house mix, the cello filling the bottom-end role of a bassist. All of these players are masters of their instruments, and The Foundry crowd was treated to one thrilling solo after another. It was especially fun to hear the cello at times mimicking the fiddle with double stops.

Ms. Bichan’s compositions are more sophisticated than you might expect from a country fiddler—until you remember that she studied at Berklee College of Music, where she distinguished herself by winning a number of awards. Her writing is full of clever twists and turns, unexpected key changes, and intricate ensemble figures that, together, seem at times to reflect jazz influences.

Many Celtic bands are good at conjuring visions of Scottish country life, landscapes, and famous battles, all seen through the mists of time. It is an important part of what they do. But the visions Louise Bichan conjures are startlingly vivid. You walk away from a Louise Bichan performance knowing quite a lot about her homeland and the people who live there, like her father, who still farms the land of her youth.

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