Doug Lamey returns to his native Boston on May 14, with a concert at the Burren Backroom to launch his new album, "True North."
It’s not just a concert/album launch, it’s a homecoming.
Fiddler Doug Lamey, a Boston-area native and a denizen of its Celtic music and dance community – particularly that of Cape Breton – for a number of years, will be at the Burren Backroom in Somerville on May 14 at 4 p.m. to officially mark the release of his second recording, “True North.”
He has been living in Cape Breton for a dozen years now, with his wife Kaitlin and their four kids, but is delighted at the prospect of returning to the place where he grew up.
“Coming back down to Massachusetts, and to be in and around Boston, is always exciting,” says Lamey, who’ll be accompanied by pianist Janine Randall at the concert. “The Burren is such a great venue – I spent so much time there when I was in my early and mid-20s, and I got to be around incredible musicians like Tommy Peoples and Frankie Gavin. And there were some very special people, like Brian O’Donovan, who were a big influence on me when I was just starting out. Lots of wonderful memories.”
Those reminiscences also include the many hours spent at the Canadian American Club in Watertown, the locus for Cape Breton music, dance, and general bonhomie. But Lamey’s activities were by no means confined to the club; his local appearances also included BCMFest, Club Passim, the ICONS Festival at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England, New England Cable News, and WGBH’s “Celtic Sojourn.”
“As a Cape Breton fiddler in Boston, you were a big fish in a small pond. There weren’t too many of us around. So, I’d get called on for a lot of events – not just concerts or festivals but dances, weddings, social occasions.
“Now, living in Cape Breton,” he says with a smile, “I feel like a small fish in a large sea of really good fiddlers.”
Boston may have been home for much of Lamey’s life, but Cape Breton was always a close second, given his family connections there, among them his grandfather Bill, a legendary fiddler who, after moving to Boston in 1953, became a central figure in the city’s Cape Breton community and its ties with the local Irish; Bill’s wife Sally was fluent in Scots Gaelic and the daughter of a Gaelic songwriter. Bill – who later retired to Cape Breton – died when Doug was a child just starting out on fiddle, but his grandfather has always remained an inspiration and an influence. Lamey’s first album, “A Step Back in Time,” underscored this legacy by interspersing audio excerpts of Bill's reminiscences on Cape Breton life and music. (Lamey also recorded an album as a member of the group Trí in 2009, two years before “A Step Back in Time.”)
Where “A Step Back in Time” featured several other musicians, including Kaitlin on piano, Lamey’s cousins Sandy and Johnny MacDonald on guitar and piano, respectively, Gaelic singer Jeff MacDonald and cellist Natalie Haas, on “True North” things are far more pure-drop basic: Lamey with piano accompaniment from Sarah MacInnis on 12 of the 14 tracks, Mac Morin on the other two. It’s the archetypal Cape Breton dynamic: a driving, energetic fiddle aligned with the piano’s syncopated rhythms, walking bass lines, and perfectly lovely harmonies – or perhaps a soulful slow air or sweet-toned waltz, with a rich, empathetic piano backing to match.
Lamey covers quite a lot of ground, repertoire-wise, on “True North.” He pays homage to his grandfather on “Bill’s 78 Records,” with a medley of selections from Bill’s catalog of tunes, and to another Cape Breton music giant, Buddy MacMaster – MacInnis’s grandfather – on “Buddy Jigs.” There are numerous tunes on the album that, while originating in Scottish tradition, have over time acquired a Cape Breton essence: “Dr. Shaw’s Strathspey” and “Carnie’s Canter” (by the renowned James Scott Skinner); “The Pitnacree Ferryman”; Nathaniel Gow’s “The Fairy Dance”; “Nine Pint Coggie”; and Simon Fraser’s “Inverness Lasses.”
A pair of tracks reference some foundational tune collections that have been important resources for Lamey: “Skye Tunes,” featuring “The Marquis of Huntley’s Farewell” (by William Marshall), “Glen Grant,” “Miss Robertson” and “The Marquis of Tyllybardine”; and “An Athole Set,” with “North of the Grampians,” “Welcome to Your Feet Again,” “Braes of Auchtertyre,” “Cabar Féidh,” “Marquis of Queensbury” and “Mrs. Dundas of Arnistan.”
The album first took root some eight years ago, says Lamey, when he recorded the sets with Morin at Lakewind Sound (“It has a beautiful grand piano,” he says), but those tracks lay fallow because “life just got busy.” Then last spring, the Lameys moved to Baddeck, which was much closer to Lakewind, and Lamey – with Kaitlin’s blessing (on the album’s sleeve notes, he offers a dedication to her as “my True North”) – decided it was time to resuscitate the project. The turning point came in the fall, when Lamey played a series of gigs with different pianists, among them MacInnis. As studio time had finally become available, he ended up asking her to accompany him.
“This was Sarah’s first time in a studio, but she was a natural at it, and we recorded 12 tracks in two four-hour sessions. What with those gigs I’d been playing, I was really liking the sound of fiddle and piano – an actual piano, not a ‘keyboard’ – and I didn’t want to cover it up with any other instruments; it was just a nice authentic presentation of Cape Breton fiddle music.
“It was also interesting to have two different piano styles on the one album. Mac’s playing is really elaborate and amazing; Sarah has a lot of feeling and a very nice groove to her playing. She was doing these little bass runs that I would hear in my grandfather’s recordings – when I listened to our tracks, it almost seemed like we had a bass player with us.
“I just felt like I wanted to get an album out, because it had been so long – it seemed like something that needed to get done.”
To put it mildly, a lot has changed for Lamey between “A Step Back in Time” and “True North.” He’s had to balance music with family life and full-time work, of course, but he also feels he’s grown as a musician.
“I feel much stronger, exponentially better than when I first came to Cape Breton,” he says. “At one point I went through a burst of writing, where I wrote about 70 pieces, but I wasn’t comfortable enough to meld them into what I was doing. I’ve kept listening to and learning from my grandfather’s recordings, but also really going into the Skye and Athole collections, as well as books by Paul Cranford, who did one on Brenda Stubbert and another on Winston ‘Scotty’ Fitzgerald [two other highly respected Cape Breton fiddlers].
“It’s been a constant learning process – however much you progress, there’s always more to learn. Having a family makes life different, of course. I was drawn to be home with Kaitlin and the kids, and it felt to me that this was the most important thing. But even then, music has never been completely on the back burner. It’s been such a significant, positive part of my life and still is. Now, that might mean playing in the Burren Backroom or at a session up here – or I might have the house to myself before work, and if I pick up the fiddle and play just for myself, that might be the nicest little part of my day.
“I’m grateful that I’ve never taken it for granted.”