Publication: The Vancouver Courier
Date Printed: Wednesday, November 22, 1995
By: Mike Usinger
Two years ago, Ashley MacIsaac was sitting in Paul Simon's New York City living room, hanging out with the man who made Mrs. Robinson a near-mythical figure.

Even if you hate everything the hippies stood for, you can probably name at least a double album's worth of Simon songs. From the soft rock staple "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to "You Can Call Me Al," the diminutive singer has become the Energizer Bunny of the folk movement. Bob Dylan may be incoherent and Peter, Paul and Mary pathetic caricatures of themselves, but Simon's still going.

He did a mini-set of his best known tunes the day MacIsaac met him in his living room. Acoustic guitar in hand, Simon played MacIsaac a 20-tune medley. He then sat back and wondered if the young man before him was actually from Mars instead of Creignish, Nova Scotia.

"He's sitting there singing his most famous hits to me, and I'm like, 'No, sorry I don't know that one,' and 'I don't know that one either,'" MacIsaac laughs from an Ottawa tour stop. "It was like a Spinal Tap incident - completely silly. The advantage of it all was that it made it a lot easier for me to work with him. when I got on stage with him in New York a few days later, I didn't have a lot of preconceptions."

Most 20-year-olds wouldn't be able to handle the kind of life MacIsaac's lived over the past two years. At the beginning of the '90s, he was playing Saturday-night square dances in Creignish, N.S. today he's a Canadian phenomenon who, besides Simon, has performed with Artists like Philip Glass and David Byrne (and no, he didn't know any of their stuff either).

MacIsaac finds it all a little bewildering. "It's amazing," he confesses. "After all, I'm a boy from Cape Breton who plays the fiddle at dances. Up until recently, I didn't know that people did things like sit in hotels ordering room service."

MacIsaac (at the Rage on Nov. 26) plays the fiddle the way Jimi Hendrix used to attack his guitar: with savage, sublime proficiency. Hi How Are you today?, his major label debut, justifies the hype of the past two years - the television appearances, magazine articles and record company bidding wars. On tracks like "MacDougall's Pride," MacIsaac can make you smell the salty Atlantic air of St. George's Bay. When he's not making your tear ducts burn, he's setting the horse hair on fire with traditional stompers like "The Devil in the Kithcen."

As the Pogues found out a decade ago, tampering with tradition can make you a lot of enemies. For every young drunk who loved Shane McGowan, there was an old-timer who thought the Pogues were murdering Irish music. MacIsaac finds himself in the same predicament. There are a lot of people back home who wish he'd play the fiddle like it was 1895 instead of 1995.

"I know there are a lot of traditionalists out there, and we've tried to appeal to them with this album. At the same time, we've also tried to do some new stuff and different arrangements. But in the end - take away all the other stuff - it's all fiddle music."

If Hi How Are You Today? had been made two years ago, it would have been a very different kind of album. Then, MacIsaac knew nothing about Jale and Sloan - bands that've helped make Halifax one of the most hyped alternative hot spots in North America. Today he's good friends with them - Jale is the backing band on the disc's "What An Idiot He Is." The Bob Snider song features lines like "Well he walks with a swagger and he talks with a sneer." It's MacIsaac's way of responding to those who've become jealous of his success.

"I've got a natural connection with the Halifax bands. They got people buzzing about the Maritimes, and because of that I've had the opportunity to play for audience in places like Vancouver, and do showcases for industry and record label people.

"That's all been wonderful, but I try not to let it go to my head. At the end of the day, when all the hype is over, I'll be back playing square dances and wakes in Creignish."

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