They’re Freelin’ it

St. John’s-based group The Freels are turning heads with their notable entry into to a longstanding musical tradition. They share some thoughts on identity and their place in traditional Newfoundland music.

There’s something special about seeing new bands and performers take to the stage and make their contribution to a longstanding musical tradition. With Newfoundland’s mixed bag of tricks, when it comes to traditions worth reaching into, those from Ireland, England, Scotland and Cape Breton have been tinkered with, scoffed at, stuffed into a museum, modernized, reinterpreted, romanticized, idealized, and hopefully will continue to so long as there are trees to build instruments.

So, to catch a glimpse of a young, energetic group like The Freels is to witness music history in the making. They are Anthony Chafe (guitar, accordion), Maria Peddle (fiddle), Danny Mills (whistle, bouzouki, Irish flute) and Andrew Fitzgerald (fiddle, bodhran).

Early experiences and finding a place

I interviewed three group members recently and identity surfaced as a prevalent theme in the conversation. I asked how they thought of their place within the Newfoundland music traditions, and each alluded to the importance of their early experiences growing up with the music. Peddle cited an Out of The Fog performance by Nova Scotia’s Natalie MacMaster she saw when she was five years old as her inspiration to learn the fiddle. Mills thanks the “expat syndrome” of his parents, who gave him an early immersion into Newfoundland music while living in Cornwall, Ont. “I like to think of myself as more of a Newfoundland player, because I probably know more Newfoundland tunes than any other kind and I play more in that style…but I play the Irish flute, which is not really an instrument you hear in Newfoundland,” he explains. “But I don’t think my irish flute playing would be quite the same if I’d grown up in Ireland.”

Traditional Newfoundland music is something of a melting pot of other, unique traditions with their own flair: French, Scottish, English, Irish, and Portuguese. So the question of identity for the Newfoundland musician is unique in a sense, as these influences pose challenges to each musician. For instance, how do you interpret tradition, and whose tradition are you interpreting exactly? “That’s an interesting debate,” says Fitzgerald. “Where do you draw that line, you know, sticking to tradition and then also having that artistic freedom? Where you fall along that continuum really varies.”

“Even locally,” adds Mills, explaining some musicians he knows are purists while others are more liberal with their interpretation when it comes to representing specific styles.

For The Freels, much of their interpretation comes down to the needs of the tunes themselves. “We do a lot of ornamentation, stuff that makes it quite Irish, or even Scottish,” says Fitzgerald.

“There’s the tune, and then so much of it is improvisation,” explains Mills. “We throw things in while performing too.”

“We also throw in harmonies, and stops,” Peddle adds.

To listen to the group play a certain tune is to hear the unique personality and individuality of each musician.

Now’s the time – go see ’em!

This Saturday (Feb. 23), the affectionately dubbed “baby Dards” (after St. John’s trad band The Dardanelles) take to the stage at the basement auditorium of the Gower Street United Church for only their second headlining gig in town outside a couple folk night appearances.

It will be a great opportunity to see how some of the province’s young guns are quickly adapting to life on stage, and how they are bending the tunes to suit themselves. They’re impressively creating their own sound and their own identity with some pretty old tunes.

Tickets for the Feb. 23 show are $15 and available and O’Brien’s Music and Fred’s Records. Their set will feature a guest spot by Fergus Brown-O’Byrne, and Kat McLevey will open the show. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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