There may not be a round-the-clock death watch, but Ashley MacIsaac has more in common with Shane MacGowan than a fondness for traditional music and a wee bit of the leprechaun within. He's bankable and erratic and a possible crackpot who pulls people to his gigs as much out of morbid curiosity -- what'll he look like? what'll he say? -- as for the music. What's sad about that, even if it is MacIsaac's own dang fool fault, is that he's still an extraordinary musician, as comfortable playing with Philip Glass and David Byrne in front of well-heeled Manhattanites as he is kicking up his heels with the Chieftains, both of which he's done this year.
If his current headlining tour -- which pulled into the Horseshoe Friday -- is any indication, MacIsaac is back in shape, and all is forgiven by his fans. As if to give us a basis of comparison for his chops, MacIsaac opened the set seated behind a keyboard while Howie MacDonald wrangled the violin and Stuart Cameron fingered his acoustic guitar. A few rousing corkers later and MacDonald and MacIsaac traded places. That's when things went ballistic.
Scorching through a high-voltage stream of traditional jigs and stompers -- at one point veering into a medley of Christmas tunes -- MacIsaac played with mind-melting verve, sawing away as if his bow had teeth and slamming his boots against the stage floor for punctuation.
Celtic music may be the easiest in the world to dance to -- and one suspects the beer tally at the end of the night spread a big, fat grin across club honcho Jeff Cohen's face -- but to play it with both spirit and precision is another matter entirely.
By the time folks were lubricated enough to start twirling each other around in earnest, MacIsaac, head bowed and eyes shielded behind tinted shades, was clearly off on another astral plane, the music having consumed all his earthly senses. Sometimes even erratics have exceptional days.ASHLEY MacISAAC at the Horseshoe, December 8. Tickets: $15. Attendance: 400. Rating: NNN