In Madame Blavatsky’s ‘The Ensouled Violin’ Giuseppe Tartini’s demonic fiddle-playing is the result of a pact with the devil. At his best Rau MacMillan is a violinist of exceptional virtuosity, as if the devil Robert Burns so often meets on the moors of Scotland were dangling under his bowstrings as he creeps through over an hour of Scottish folk.
The band setup is straightforward and to the point: MacMillan is spotlit solidly in centre-stage, flanked by guitar and bodhran either side. Each of his bandmates gets a solo, which breaks up the set nicely but can’t help the fact that they are essentially backing musicians without MacMillan’s flare or ear for arrangement. The setlist is a typical mixture of new composition, traditional and learned pieces. There’s something taught to him by the flute band and festival-favourite Flook as well as the odd bit of Cape Breton.
It’s quality stuff as far as it goes. But MacMillan only has so many strings to his bow. He does peaks and troughs, pace, arrangement and gusto very well. What he doesn’t do is innovation, experimentation or variety. For all its skill and flair, it’s folk-by-numbers, rather than artistic endeavour. The show’s sheer avalanche pace saves it from tedium but the trio struggles to make the hour’s set multi-textured enough to keep our interest.
In fact, they want us to stay longer than we do. In a clumsy misjudgement that undermines MacMillan’s professionalism, he returns for an encore despite barely a smattering of applause at the end of the gig and not a single invitation to do so. It speaks of a certain egotism, unwelcome in a genre that at its traditional fringes still thrives on humbleness and familiarity. Maybe it’s a small complaint and one can’t exactly accuse MacMillan of being the devil. Except, that is, for when he plays.