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Musician Fiddles Around With Pop Music

Nova Scotia's Ashley MacIsaac blends the ancient Celtic melodies he learned as a boy with cutting-edge techno and rock.


What led young Ashley MacIsaac astray? Maybe all those episodes of "Soul Train" and "The Price Is Right" that he watched from his home on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where this impressionable boy fiddler caught his first glimpses of American pop culture.

Or perhaps it was that six-month trip to New York City as a 17-year-old, when he first began haunting the techno dance scene in his platform shoes and kilt. That's when MacIsaac began to get dangerous ideas like this: "Listening to techno music for the first time, I'd be tripping out, saying, 'You could hum fiddle tunes over these.' "

Not just any fiddle tunes, but the ancient Celtic melodies and styles he first discovered as a boy. Now 21, MacIsaac blends those romantic airs with the cutting-edge pop sounds of the day, from the pumping euphoria of techno to aggressive alternative rock.

If that singular blend at first earned this "fiddle bastard" the wrath of Celtic traditionalists, MacIsaac is at least keeping good company these days. His tour with the Chieftains and Michelle Shocked lands at the Universal Amphitheatre on Monday.

MacIsaac's new "Hi How Are You Today" album offers the most dramatic mix of musical styles this side of Moby. While several tracks offer music that is delicate and traditional enough to warm the hearts of the old folks back home, others feature an ungodly blend of ancient and contemporary that works better than anyone could have predicted.

His goal with the modern songs, MacIsaac said during an interview from a concert tour stop in Louisville, Ky., was "to play still in the root of my music, a Cape Breton fiddler and playing as the common man, as well as showing the idea that I can put as much energy across as any alternative band."

On the song "Sleepy Maggie," vocalist Mary Jane Lamond sings in Gaelic across a backdrop of fast techno rhythms, while "Devil in the Kitchen" sends MacIsaac and his fiddle into a swirl of aggressive rock.

Which isn't to suggest that MacIsaac aims to confront traditional fiddle audiences recklessly. During his half-hour opening set on the Chieftains tour, he paces his music with a balanced mix of old and new.

"Since I was 9 years old, I've tried to make everybody like me," MacIsaac said. "That's whether I'm playing the fiddle or talking to someone. . . . I've always considered myself an entertainer.

"It's all a matter of having everybody who's there, the complete demographic, be happy with the show by the end of it."

One song from the new album that MacIsaac won't likely be performing Monday is "What an Idiot He Is," a wry Dylan-esque rocker that features a rare vocal performance by the fiddler.

"That was the first time I ever sang," he said of that recording session with Jale, a Canadian all-female rock act. "Up until that point, every time I sang my eyes would water."

Despite his insatiable interest in contemporary pop music, MacIsaac remains as committed to traditional fiddle music as the folks back home in Cape Breton, a town settled by the Scots 150 years ago. "It's like being in Ireland. So there's fiddlers and step-dancers and pipers," he said. "As a kid it was the thing to do. If you learn to play electric guitar in L.A. as a kid, you learn to play the fiddle in Cape Breton."

After the next year of touring is finally over, MacIsaac said he hopes to record an album of fiddle-disco mixes, which he only dabbled in on "How Are You Today?"

"Disco for me is the ultimate pop music," MacIsaac said. "It doesn't matter if you're a musician and you hate it. You can get drunk and eventually you'll be dancing to it. From where I'm from, that's what music is all about: feeling. If the rhythm is there and it can make you move, that's what good music is."

Meanwhile, MacIsaac is hoping to sneak away for a bit during this upcoming visit to Los Angeles. "I'm going to do 'The Price Is Right' again. The last time I was there, I was wearing my kilt, screaming, 'Two dollars!' at the top of my lungs. This time I'm going to get on."


* WHO: Ashley MacIsaac, with the Chieftains and Michelle Shocked.

* WHEN: 8:15 p.m. Monday.

* WHERE: Universal Amphitheatre.

* HOW MUCH: $24.50 and $20.50.

* CALL: (213) 252-8497

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