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Session A9 – The Magic Roundabout, a review

Session A9's The Magic Roundabout combines heartfelt traditional and modern Celtic tunes, showcasing mastery in fiddle music and personal touches.

Release Date
28 January 2024
The Magic Roundabout, Session A9
Session A9's album, The Magic Roundabout, surpasses just being "good" with its contemporary Celtic fiddle mastery. Bringing together notable fiddlers and musicians after nearly 12 years, it offers a mix of traditional and modern influences, from foot-tapping tunes to heartwarming waltzes and energetic reels. Despite occasional missteps and divisive cover versions, its personal, vibrant tracks and innovative fusion highlight moments of brilliance.

Life doesn’t have to be edgy all of the time, does it? It doesn’t need to be cool and difficult to be considered worthwhile. It doesn’t need to be constantly pushing at the boundaries and taking risks. Life, and music, can just be good, can’t they? 

The new album by Scottish Folk super-group, Session A9, is better than “just” good. It’s a masterclass in contemporary Celtic fiddle playing and, while it might be named after the famous Magic Roundabout in Swindon, it’s anything but boring. 

Fiddle players Kevin Henderson (Boys of the Loch), Adam Sutherland (Treacherous Orchestra, Peatbog Faeries), Gordon Gunn (Celtic Connections house bands) and Charlie Mckerron (Capercaillie) are joined by David “Chimp” Robertson on percussion, Marc Clement on guitar and vocals and Brian McAlpine on piano for this, the first Session A9 for almost 12 years. It proves to be well worth the wait. 

The ‘John Duff Set’, a tune each written by Sutherland, Mckerron and Gunn, is a fantastic foot-tapper to start things off – the fiddles working in perfect harmony, a wonderful Caledonian spirit conjured as they step in unison. The piano and a choppy acoustic guitar usher in a strict tempo and, while the fiddles revel in a classic Scottish sound, the guitar brings something a little different. There’s a breakdown, every now and again, that hints at something a little more contemporary, a little closer to Scottish Indie-pop than pure trad. This blending of styles becomes more obvious the deeper into the album that you venture. 

Two waltzes and a reel follow. Both are gorgeous. The ‘Waltzes’ – Robert & Shauna’s and Sandra’s – again use the guitar and piano as a guide but, this time, it’s the fiddles that take the accolades. Beautiful playing, stately and delightfully old-fashioned, it’s the sound of a first dance for a windswept Highland wedding. Both are impossibly romantic. ‘Rachel’s Graduation Day/Tenor Reel’ is upbeat and bounce-y, it whirls around full of joy, not quite succumbing to abandon but smiling broadly nonetheless. McAlpine’s piano carries echoes of something from a different continent together; it’s almost ragtime or, at the very least, you might expect to hear it in some sawdust-strewn Western saloon bar. 

Each of the first three tracks seems to have been written for specific people, or specific events. This personal feeling gives The Magic Roundabout something very special indeed. You can feel the warmth and care that has gone into each tune, the love just glows from them. 

The title track sees the four fiddles cast endless halos across the floor, swirling eddies of light repeating in tight, bright circles. The traditional Celtic playing is still there but the melody weaves a multi-coloured radiance too. Plucked and plinked strings, and the solid rhythm of the acoustic guitar, allow those fiddles to build and build, to spin and twirl. It’s a glorious, dizzying tune, the best on the album. ‘Friday the 13th’ is less successful, overwhelmed as it is by syncopation and edging towards schmaltz. You wouldn’t be all that surprised if you learnt that it had been used as incidental music for something like Moonlighting in the 80s. A lovely waltz, a wistful violin and some restrained piano can’t save it from the syrupy-ness. 

Fortunately, ‘C Set’ is a fabulous way to end the album. The violins and guitar set up an old-timey groove, a jaunty swagger, the pace picks up nicely until a frenzy of violins compete with the piano pounding away. As all four violins play in unison, with a patter of percussion, notes are plucked out and flung cheerfully into the air. By the third tune in the set violins, guitar and piano bring the whole thing home, exhausted but exhilarated. 

If The Magic Roundabout were simply a collection of contemporary Celtic fiddle tunes there is no doubt that it would sit, happily, on your shelves next to those Blazin’ Fiddles and RANT albums. As it is, there are two cover versions that will either have you reaching for the skip button or relishing the change of tone. ‘Heart Of Saturday Night’, the Tom Waits classic, is a brave choice. For too many people, Waits and his heartbroken croon are untouchable. Clement, wisely, makes no attempt to replicate Waits, instead pitching his vocal at radio-two-friendliness. McAlpine’s piano gives the whole thing the requisite woozy, waltz-y punchdrunk air and, when the fiddles shake off their polite shackles, there is a real sense that the song has been covered for the love of it. Your love of it might depend on your feelings towards Tom Waits. 

The other cover is Robbie Robertson’s ‘Twilight’. Again, it’s a little too polite with Clements’ vocal smoothing any edges that might be lurking. There’s a lovely bit of Americana sway that is certainly better than the original’s faux-reggae stylings, the piano and fiddles making this cover the more successful of the two.

The Magic Roundabout isn’t edgy, it isn’t pushing boundaries and, every now and again, it takes a slightly wrong turn. When it catches alight though, there are moments of real brilliance. The lovingly personal tunes make this well worth seeking out.

The Magic Roundabout by Session A9 is out now. It can be ordered via the Session A9 Bandcamp page.