Gus LaCasse, Fiddler-at-Large
It’s another Monday night at Sips in Southwest Harbor, and the open mic is about to begin. Guest host Peter Lindquist stands at the helm, adjusting the PA and mic stands with the help of a tall young man with long black hair and warm brown eyes. I’ve seen Peter play before, as the bassist from Banned From Eden, but tonight he wields an acoustic guitar.
I am probably that last person on Mount Desert Island to become aware of the Gus LaCasse phenomenon. We chat while some other performers sign up for the jam session, and he is friendly, relaxed, and genuine. He has an easy quality I have come to associate with home-schoolers, as if he has no particular suspicion of people. Hopefully, his forays into professional music will not sully this quality.
Soon, Peter and Gus begin to play, and I realize that this is not average open mic night fare. From folk, where Gus sings harmony over his fiddle, to Cape Breton reels, where he takes the lead, to Manouche-style “Minor Swing,” Gus and Peter drop every jaw in the house.
64th notes melt like butter on hot toast, as his long, slender fingers seem to reach all over the little ebony neck at once. I catch him sawing away on melody while simultaneously plucking strings with what must be a sixth finger on his left hand, and am reminded of a short story by Borges in which a twelve-fingered harpist plays so many extra notes that his faithful audience members begin to grow extra ears to hear them all. While that story ends in tragedy, this one gives hope. The normally talkative crowd is stunned, attentive, and palpably changed, but we have not yet begun to mutate. This is not surreal, just stunningly good.
Peter Lindquist comps, plucks, and strums beautifully, laying out a solid framework for Gus’ artistry, as the pyrotechnical young fingerpainter makes bold statements across the borders of traditional fiddling. A few days later, Gus sits with me and talks about how he got here and where he’s headed next.
“What’s your dream ensemble? I mean, do you see yourself playing with double bass, a piper, or flute player?”
“For me, the duo is perfect. It’s spare, and both of us play melody and rhythm. It’s also practical, in that it’s easier to organize the rehearsals and gigs. I’ve been playing with Peter for about eight months now, and while I have had many violin teachers, Peter is my first real mentor in music performance.”
“How did you get started? What was that ‘Aha!’ moment?”
“I was about six when I first heard a student playing violin in Trenton Elementary School. I went home that same night and told my Mom, ‘I want to play violin.’ Pretty soon after that, I started classical lessons.”
After a few years of classical violin, Gus heard a CD from Vishten, a traditional group from Prince Edward Island. Pascale Miousse plays fiddle on the disc, and he eventually became one of Gus’ most influential teachers, though they only meet once a year. “That CD stayed in the car for over a year, and just kept playing around and around. That’s how I caught the Traditional Fiddling Bug.”
Since then, Gus has studied and taught at the Acadia Traditional School, and toured with other teachers and students in Ireland and Canada.
“So what is your next gig?”
“I’m playing a set in Boston on Saturday night, a little place called Club Passim.”
“That’s a famous club!”
“Yes, I’m playing an opening set for my friend’s CD release party. It’ll be my fourth gig there.”
No wonder he’s so at home on stage in Southwest Harbor. He’s fiddled his way across Ireland, Cape Breton, and one of the premier stages in New England.
“I‘ve also been asked to do a wedding with The Blake Rosso Band later this Spring.”
“So do you have other aspirations in life besides playing fiddle, or do you see yourself pursuing music as a full-time profession?”
“Well, when I was younger, I loved soccer. I played all the time, and dreamt about being a soccer player, but two concussions later, I had to give it up. I’d love to be a professional performer, but it’s tough out there. I could see myself as a conservation biologist, to make ends meet, but fiddling is my real love.”
Now, I’ve been wrong about many things in the past. I predicted that there were not enough “deplorables” to elect Donald Trump. I thought auto-tuned vocals would not be heard on radio for long, and that ill-advised men would soon resume wearing belts, so the rest of us would not have to see their underwear, or worse. That’s optimism for you. But I will bet good money that Gus LaCasse will never need another career besides fiddling.
We sit and play a few of my own compositions. I’m on the 12-string, tuned to open D, and he easily navigates the slow jig, “Comet’s Hope.” His soloing is so enthralling that I can barely keep the song together. We shift into “Mystery,” a number I have recorded in the past with two other fiddlers, and Gus tears it up, giving the song a livelihood I have only dreamt about. He’s got a lot of theory under his hat, so when I call out, “up to the five of five,” he’s all over the E chord, resolving it to C with the prescience of a mind-reader.
Traditional stylings informed by Classical chops and music theory. Monster talent guided by strong intuition. He’s also easy to talk with, and easy on the eyes. Gus LaCasse seems to have everything he needs, and if he can navigate the pitfalls of the music biz, particularly the self-deprecating voice inside every musician’s head that tells them they are not good enough, we will get to watch another young talent launch from the ground up to the stars.
Did I forget mention that Gus is sixteen years old, and a sophomore at MDI High? Yep. He can be viewed on Facebook and YouTube as “Gus LaCasse, Fiddler,” and has recordings on Soundcloud.
“So, Gus, are you available for hire?”
“Absolutely. I’m ready for anything.”