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FIDDLE MONSTERS

On the evening of February 7, the Lincoln Room of the American Centre was the place to be, as the American string group, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, performed as part of the US State Department’s American Music Abroad programme. As is the case with many musical outfits formed by collaborating artists, this band of fiddlers would be a source of great joy for people who like to pick their favourite musicians and create fantasy ensembles. The Dance Cards are made up of Mariel Vandersteel on the violin and Valerie Thompson on the cello. Leading them is Laura Cortese, a Boston-based singer-songwriter-fiddler who released her third album, Into The Dark, last year. While Vandersteel’s recent solo album, Hickory, was a mosaic of old-time fiddle tunes and Norwegian folk music played on a little-known instrument called the Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele in Norwegian), and was both a commercial and a critical success, Thompson, a classical cellist, has performed with the likes of Amanda Palmer and Fred Hersch.

The performance that evening began with the Dance Cards collaborating onstage with Malabika Brahma, the lead vocalist of the local band, Brahmakhyapa, and the folk music outfit, Sahajiya. Brahma’s raw, husky vocals blended seamlessly with Cortese’s precise fiddling. The performance went to a whole new level with Vandersteel’s beautiful fiddle solo, making the song swell like a river in spate. Thereafter, Cortese and her band had the stage to themselves; they went on to prove how the lingering, deep sounds of the violoncello are a pleasure when found within acoustic roots music. Implicit in their playing is the understanding of the value of the drone. Train On The Island was a fiddle-soaked gem on which Cortese’s deep, Annie Lennox-meets-Dolores O’Riordan voice soared. Rendering their act even more remarkable was the absence of any drums or traditional percussive instrument. The need for rhythm was fulfilled by a lot of percussively sawed strings, creating solid threads of sound that looped and braided and interwove with an inexorable force.

The Dance Cards’s performance was more than just an experiment in coating folk music with cello. The delightful, downtown-Louisiana Heel To Toe cavorted with what was, at best, a rather open interpretation of bluegrass, but that is alright because gentle, liberal interpretations of genre-based music does produce fulfilling results. I Am The House, with its sharp fiddling, was a disco-meets-bluegrass anthem, while Village Green — loaded, interestingly, with a distinct Chris Martin vibe — revealed the huge Patti Smith fangirls that the Dance Cards are. Catherine, a song about a young girl from Richmond, California, who was sexually assaulted by high school boys, ended with a message of hope, “I will rise.”

Setting Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards apart from other singer-songwriters who play instruments is the fact that their music centres on the fiddle ensemble, sans guitars. Moreover, they are artists whose diverse musical experiences allow them to create something that sounds like a real band instead of just a whimsical musical experiment. One wishes that the women had performed Lay Me Low, an aching Americana tune that will remind one immediately of Diana Jones.