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Folk Reviews
 

Scots Fiddle Festival 2017      Richard Thompson      Leveret      

Fiona Ross      Skipinnish       Donald Black      Bellevue Rendezvous      

Väsen      Snuffbox      Quercus    Tradfest: Bagpipes Gu Leor      

Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman      The Fretless      Top Floor Taivers      

Ímar     Young Trad Final 2017       Basco & Talisk      The Transports      

Chris Stout & Catriona McKay      Shooglenifty: A Night for Angus      

Mànran      Blair Douglas       Sarah-Jane Summers & Juhani Silvola     

Barbara Dymock      Lynched     The Gloaming        Ross & Ali      Tannara      Réalta      

Christy Moore      Jarlath Henderson     Allan MacDonald & Neil Johnstone   

Talisk        Tradfest 2016      The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc      

Simon Thoumire & Ian Carr       Iain MacFarlane      

Buttons & Bows      Celtic Fiddle Festival with Finlay MacDonald & Chris Stout      

Just for Gordon/Dreamers’ Circus      Moving Hearts and neXo      Solas and Dallahan     

Armagh Pipers Club 50th     Freeland Barbour     The Chieftains       Carrying Stream   

 

Scots Fiddle Festival 2017, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

 

In its twenty-first year as one of the most prestigious and nourishing events on the fiddle music calendar, the Scots Fiddle Festival has reached the point where its mainstage guests now have memories of attending the festival with their parents or even performing as very young fiddlers in concert.

 

It’s an inclusive celebration with recitals by players such as Argyll master Archie McAllister, workshops for all levels and an outreach project whose participants opened Saturday’s concert with admirable vigour and aplomb and might well include future star turns.

 

Friday’s headliner, Graham Mackenzie first appeared at the festival as a twelve year old. Now twenty-five, he returned to perform an autobiographical programme with references including a Celtic Connections Danny award win around the same time as that first Scots Fiddle Festival gig, immersion in Manchester’s Irish music scene and exchange trips to Cape Breton. Played mostly with his nine-piece band – essentially a string quintet combined with a folk group – it showcased the finesse he has added through studies at the Royal Northern College of Music and a talent for well-turned melodies and sumptuous arrangements with smart, neatly detailed codas.

 

Although at different stages of development, Friday’s opening act, Glasgow-based Snuffbox and Saturday’s bill-toppers, Michigan-born fiddler Jeremy Kittel’s trio shared much in common in taking traditional music forward. Snuffbox pitches the current BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, fiddler Charlie Stewart with cellist Rufus Huggan and guitarist Luc McNally and produces music with a great sense of spontaneity in its superbly varied dynamics, easy interchanging of melodic, harmonic and percussive roles, its often raw emotions and sheer character. 

 

Kittel’s group with mandolinist Joshua Pinkham and guitarist Quinn Bachand takes the string band tradition into marvellously rarefied levels of collective virtuosity. Playing a repertoire that ranged from bluegrass to a startling Bach partita to a cunningly modulating strathspey and reel set, they too sounded thrillingly spontaneous and they finished by inviting Patsy Reid, who had preceded them with strongly characterful Perthshire tunes before introducing her international band, for an exhilarating, impromptu twin fiddle medley.  

 

From The Times, November 20, 2017

 

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Richard Thompson, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

 

There is an album being promoted on Richard Thompson’s current tour and not untypically he managed simultaneously to pooh-pooh his latest work, Acoustic Rarities, and bring it to the audience’s attention.

 

Thompson is the master of self-deprecation just as his fifty years as a professional musician, which he referred to with bashful pride, has honed the guitar playing and songwriting talent he showed way back with Fairport Convention into something approaching live film direction.

 

There are songs such as – handily - They Tore the Hippodrome Down where Thompson becomes scriptwriter, narrator, soundtrack composer and six-string orchestrator, using words and guitar to establish an atmosphere, senses of both era and place. With the flick of a wrist he sets up opening song, Gethsemane with film noir intrigue and on the appropriately rockin’ in rhythm Valerie, while his voice depicts the ultimate femme fatale, if not without humour, his guitar takes on Duke Ellington-like locomotion and horn interjections.

 

Thompson will tell you that he does two types of song: medium tempo miserable ones and slow miserable ones. Crocodile Tears, he reckons, is almost happy, although its cynicism is positively gleeful as a he skewers the man who’s taken his place in the affections of a former lover who’s “as warm as a reptile can be.”

 

This is classic Thompson and there was much more, some of it spontaneously included by shouted requests and the odd one where a verse eluded him but was mirthfully chivvied into line just in time. His is a rare talent and what makes it all the more valuable is his very personal presentation. Most of this audience will only know him through his records but they’ll have left feeling as if they’ve just spent the evening with an old mate.

 

From The Herald, October 21, 2017

 

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Leveret, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

 

Five minutes into this beautifully presented latest instalment of Soundhouse’s Monday music series, Leveret’s Andy Cutting announced that there would be no singing. This was amusingly couched in a mock officious tone that didn’t quite make it clear whether the trio onstage wouldn’t be including songs in their set-list or that the audience should refrain from bursting into song.

 

No matter, songs were not required from either party, unless they were songs of praise from the listeners, because there’s a lyrical quality to the music Cutting, on accordion, and his colleagues, concertinist Rob Harbron and fiddler-violist Sam Sweeney, make. Even as they play dance tunes – and much of the two sets consisted of hornpipes, jigs and the like – the melodies unfold like stories, bobbing and bouncing genially.  

 

The trio sit as if round an imaginary kitchen table, teasing the tunes into spontaneous arrangements conversationally. No two Leveret gigs are the same and this development “on the fly”, to use their term, pleasingly blurs the line between the sixteenth and seventeenth century tunes they’ve learned from old manuscripts and the pieces they composed for their all-original third album, Inventions.

 

It’s mesmerising and lulling by turns and very much in the spirit of the great albums, such as the still glorious, understated Lusignac, that Cutting made with Chris Wood in the 1990s. Fiddle and concertina weave together as the accordion adds a counter melody, subtle passing chords or big rich, church organ-like bass figures, or a whistling, high-pitched harmonic adds an eerie meteorological commentary to one of what Harbron calls his protest songs, which generally have a weather-related theme. I wouldn’t want to add to the problems that rain getting into his wood pile brings but if it produces music this lovely, let it pour.

 

From The Herald, October 13, 2017

 

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Fiona Ross, Clyde’s Water (Tradition Bearers)

 

Partick-born Fiona Ross lives in Melbourne these days but she retains all the feeling for, and the ability to transmit, the Scottish song tradition that she developed on the folk scene here before moving to Australia.

 

Through one of her teachers, the admirable Andy Hunter, Ross is at one remove from the great traveller ballad singer Jeannie Robertson and through other sources of songs and support, such as Gordeanna McCulloch and Alison MacMorland, she has formed  a character that allows her to tell both long-form ballads and shorter story songs with that crucial ingredient: believability.

 

Accompanied by superb guitar playing from another expatriate, Tony McManus, with added fiddle, whistles and harmonium from John McCusker on some tracks, Ross manages to bring great portent to a brief, vengeful The Burning of Auchindoun and by contrast, she clearly delights in The Laird o Cockpen having his pomposity punctured.

 

A lovely, unaccompanied reading of The Seasons, learned from Jeannie Robertson’s daughter Lizzy Higgins, illustrates the clarity and true tone of Ross’s singing and she and McManus form a particularly nimble duo on illicit still tale Yowie wi the Crookit Horn to underline the diversity of both singer and song tradition.

 

From The Herald, September 23, 2017

 

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Skipinnish, The Seventh Wave

 

You only have to witness a Celtic Connections Skipinnish night, with Glasgow Royal Concert Hall jammed to the rafters with excited humanity, to see how successfully accordionist Angus MacPhail has steered the band into capturing Highlanders across all generations by combining Gaelic tradition, dance band nous and an open admiration for Runrig’s anthemic, rocking songs.

 

The band has even enjoyed a download hit single – the inherently catchy, danceable ‘Walking on the Waves’, included here – as it represents a true picture of Highlands and Islands life and champions Gaelic resurgence. There’s at least one fishing boat skipper in the line-up, a fact that lends credence to the shanty-like ‘Ocean of the Free’, sung in strong recent addition, Norrie MacIver’s proudly Hebridean brogue, and brings emotional weight to ‘The Iolaire’s’ disaster at sea narrative.

 

With pipes, fiddle and accordion tune sets boosting musicality and energy levels, this seventh album is generally uplifting, nowhere more so than on the Runrig favourite, ‘Alba’, borne on guest guitarist Davie Dunsmuir’s superbly aerated riffing, and ‘Crò Chinn T-Sàile’, which soars all the higher with the Skipinnish choir’s Gaelic psalm-singing.

 

From Songlines, August-September 2017

 

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Donald Black, Bho M’ Chridhe/From My Heart (own label)

 

The Argyll-born harmonica virtuoso Donald Black brings sessions from Nashville to Nova Scotia and from Lewis to the Lothians together on this aptly named instrumental album.

 

Black’s heart is indeed in the Highlands as he transfers the music of the bagpipes and the swinging Western Highland dance bands to the humble moothie with great feeling and absolute mastery. Yet there are audible influences from across the Atlantic in his playing too.

 

Bringing in Charlie McCoy, the author and player of The Old Grey Whistle Test theme, on Skye composer Blair Douglas’ New Island Waltz is an especially nice touch as Douglas, like Black, draws on both peat lands and prairies for inspiration, and the rollicking Canadian-Scottish dance set, with Cape Breton pianist Mario Collosimo, underlines Black’s ability to sound as commanding as the great accordionists of the dance music tradition.

 

In among the marches and dance sets, including The Highland Express’s initial bluesy chuff, there are superb examples of Black’s heartfelt slow air playing, with Runrig’s Malcolm Jones on guitar and Martainn Skene on cello helping to wring out every ounce of atmosphere on MacCrimmon’s Lament and The Edge of the White Rock respectively.

 

From The Herald, June 16, 2017

 

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Bellevue Rendezvous, While Rome Burns (Journeyman)

 

A Scottish-based trio with a French-sounding but actually Edinburgh-derived name, Bellevue Rendezvous find inspiration across a wide arc that includes the Scandinavian countries, Galicia, Poland and Armenia as well as sources closer to home.

 

This third album begins with a carefully measured tune from fiddler Gavin Marwick that could easily be Eastern European in origin and instantly signals the group’s ease with material that soon finds them dovetailing fiddle, its keyed Swedish cousin, the nyckelharpa, and cittern in sometimes dizzying dance meters and tunes that combine soulfulness with celebration.

 

As with Swedish masters Vasen, who are just one of their many influences, Marwick, Ruth Morris and Cameron Robson have developed a natural choreography where their instruments’ roles interchange and create a wealth of colour, contrast and vibrancy as exemplified by the closing Armenian dance, Hicazkar Sirto.

 

Robson’s Piping the Fish, despite its slightly wacky origins, is hauntingly ceremonial and in typical Bellevue Rendezvous style, slips with apparent effortlessness into the traditional Source of the Spey, and the Galician pairing of K and Jota da Gheada underlines the fun, as well as doubtless considerable playing time, that goes into creating music of such high calibre.

 

From The Herald, June 2, 2017

 

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Väsen, Brewed (North Side)

 

Twenty-eight years into their touring and recording life together the three musicians who make up Sweden’s folk music phenomenon Vasen know their places in the music. There’s a natural flow to each of these fifteen new compositions that sounds effortless and yet there’s bite in the combined attack of nyckelharpa, five-string viola and twelve-string guitar and an audible sense of enquiry that keeps the music fresh and invigorating.

 

Much of the music is based on the traditional polska dance measure but its three-beats rhythm is anything but limiting. Melodies cascade and dance with energy before slipping into more reflective passages and the instrumental grouping can sound almost orchestral in size one minute and intimately delicate the next.

 

Trostemarsch was written in consolation for the trio’s many American friends (they have a street named after them in Bloomington, Indiana) after the presidential election, although there’s little here that sounds anything other than optimistic, and even the mellowest and most atmospheric tunes, such as the cunningly titled Mellow D and Jungfrun Av Norge, have a brightness about them that’s completely enchanting and involving.

 

Dedicated fans will know what to expect, while still finding surprises; new listeners are in for an adventurous treat.

 

From The Herald, May 26, 2017

 

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Snuffbox, Playing for Free (Skye)

 

The unpromisingly titled Onions is one example of fiddler Charlie Stewart hiding his light under a bushel and the catch-all opening track’s name, Reels, is another but Onions already has some history behind it, being one of the items that Stewart played in his marvellously expressive, victorious set in the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year final in February.

 

Snuffbox are Perthshire-born Stewart, cellist Rufus Huggan and guitarist-vocalist Luc McNally and as with the fiddler’s Young Trad appearance, this, their debut album sings with energy, vitality, rugged adventure and sweet musicality.

 

Far from the nondescript set its name might suggest, Reels showcases the trio’s strong collective personality brilliantly, with Stewart displaying passion and daring variations and the three instruments variously taking turns as the lead voice, racing off in invigorating unison or offering superbly effective harmonic support.

 

Yer Maw’s finds the trio in wilfully, and quite intoxicating, adventurous mode and McNally contributes the sensitively sung Down the River and Sleeping Stars. It’s Onions, however, that offers the killer entry point as Stewart’s affecting lament-like slow air develops into the kind of melodic teasing and dramatic pacing that Martin Hayes has turned into an art form.

 

From The Herald, May 19, 2017

 

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Quercus, Nightfall (ECM)

 

It’s all about storytelling on this second album from the English folksinger June Tabor and her jazz-reared colleagues in Quercus, saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren.

 

Whether the material comes from the collecting of a Somerset folklorist, the pens of Bob Dylan, Robert Burns and Stephen Sondheim or the imaginations of Ballamy and Warren, the threesome focus on the narrative, creating by turns dark, charming and pastoral worlds for voice and instruments to inhabit.

 

Burns and Sondheim bookend the collection, with Auld Lang Syne ushering in a new album as it would a new year, if with more care and economy, and Somewhere similarly being given a hushed, sober and wary reading.

 

In between there is more to love, including a trilogy of quite different companions – jazz standard You Don’t Know What Love Is, traditional ballad The Manchester Angel and Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright - that align perfectly as Warren and Ballamy shadow, support and coax Tabor with a gospel inflection here and a creative melodic phrase there.

 

Saxophone-piano duets Christchurch and Emmeline underline Warren and Ballamy’s faultless judgement before their dance-like bird song appropriation alongside Tabor turns The Cuckoo into a folk-jazz masterpiece.

 

From The Herald, May 12, 2017

 

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Tradfest: Bagpipes Gu Leor, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

 

It was an event that lived up to its name. There were indeed bagpipes, and bagpipe music, galore and if it turned into quite a marathon, it was worth getting a numb bum just to marvel at the contrasting virtuosity of solo Highland piping master Roddy MacLeod and triple-chanter adventurer Calum Armstrong and to enjoy Brighde Chaimbeul’s gorgeous, flowing musicality on smallpipes.

 

As the man responsible for the programme, piper and pipes maker Hamish Moore pointed out, this was as much about the pipes as an instrument for dancing to as listening to and the opening set by his son, Finn and Cape Bretoner Angus MacKenzie illustrated this with tightly together rhythmical urgency and vigorous stepdancing from Finn to Mackenzie and guitarist Ewan MacPherson’s accompaniment.

 

Dance tunes and a lovely Gaelic song air showcased Brighde Chaimbeul’s sweet intonation and expressive phrasing before Calum Armstrong introduced the harmonic and chromatic possibilities of smallpipes with multiple chanters in tandem with cellist George Pasca. Theirs was an extraordinary display, with Pasca strumming creatively sympathetic chords and matching Armstrong’s dizzying melodies with both bowed and pizzicato lines on waltzes, reels and a piece that managed to evoke French courtly soirees, electric guitar shredding and the James Bond theme.

 

More traditional but just as engrossing were Allan MacDonald and Seonaidh MacIntyre’s smallpipes duets and Gaelic keening as they first took it in turns to sing a haunting foretelling and then brought voices and pipes together in, to all intents and purposes, a high art quartet. Roddy MacLeod’s brilliantly fluent marches and swinging strathspeys then gave way to a finale that completed the circle with Finn Moore’s hard shoe stepdance.

 

From The Herald, May 1, 2017

 

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Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

 

Jonathan the 184-year-old tortoise will probably never know that Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have put words in his mouth. Whether this venerable inhabitant of St Helena cares about such matters is neither here nor there. It is, however, another example of how a song idea can arrive in Roberts’ imagination and the couple’s songcraft and musicality will turn it into something rather special, and in this case quite charming despite its introduction as being a bit daft.

 

The ideas come from all sorts of sources – something their daughter Lily said about school, a passage in a Terry Pratchett novel, the legend behind the naming of Antwerp – but the results are entirely consistent.

 

It possibly helps that Roberts and Lakeman have studied great songwriters closely; Sandy Denny’s Solo, sung beautifully early on by Roberts, and Warren Zevon’s For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer were two examples of their favourites delivered here. The folksong tradition is also part of this process as, in addition to singing the Child ballad Child Owlet, they’ve turned the Pratchett quote and the story of a lonely whale, 52 Hertz, into songs that could easily become source material of the future.

 

All of this wide range is presented with a genuine warmth of personality, wonderfully clear, honest singing from Roberts and expert guitar accompaniment from Lakeman, a man who knows when to apply a rockin’ attack and when to let the song carry its own momentum or embellish with precise delicacy. With Roberts adding understated keyboard and occasional flute they’re entirely self-sufficient, a travelling show of no little folk wisdom and generous entertainment.

 

From The Herald, April 13 2017

 

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The Fretless, Bird’s Nest (own label)

 

Canadian foursome The Fretless have won several prestigious awards at home for an approach to music that puts them broadly in the same virtuosic, searching ‘folk on the cusp of chamber music’ camp as Scottish marvels Catriona McKay & Chris Stout and Scandinavians Dreamers’ Circus.

 

With three fiddlers, all doubling on viola, and a cellist, this is essentially a string quartet and the players involved bring the temperament and musicality of that tradition to music that has its roots in Irish and Scottish dance metres, old-time Americana, bluegrass, swing and occasionally something more akin to a pop song structure.

 

The tunes are catchy and the arrangements full of imagination, detail, energy and tonal variation as jigs and reels modulate with winning unpredictability, a Steve Reich-like figure bursts into swashbuckling percussive attack, strings shiver with almost backing vocal-like murmuring behind a sweetly nimble melody, and the band rocks with gritty urgency.

 

Opening track Alphonzo McKenzie’s sings with harmony to smart chip ’n’ strum accompaniment and Maybe Molly takes a back porch hoedown on an improvised but highly disciplined adventure. Word is they might be over this way in the months ahead; they’ll certainly be worth catching.

 

From The Herald, March 31, 2017

 

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Top Floor Taivers, A Delicate Game (TFT)

 

Top Floor Taivers have been gathering a reputation around the folk club scene for their clear interpretations of songs from both the Scottish tradition and contemporary sources and for a bright, cheerful collective sound.

 

Between the four constituent members they come with quite a track record, featuring as they do the 2015 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, singer Claire Hastings and one of the harp tutors on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Scottish music course, Heather Downie. Their colleagues, fiddler Gráinne Brady and pianist Tina Jordan Rees already have a splendid recording to their name as a duo, 2015’s High Spirits, and much of the instrumental character here comes from Brady’s gutsy and well-judged playing.

 

Hastings takes lead vocals, conveying the opening Johnnie o’ Braidieslee’s eventful storyline with the assistance of dramatic accompaniment and tempo changes, and there are fine four part harmonies elsewhere, notably on the intro to Andy M Stewart’s colourful Ramblin’ Rover. If Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows sounds a little rushed, there are examples of good pacing in The False Bride and Hastings’s nursery rhyme adaptation, 10 Little Men, where electro-acoustic experiments add a novel touch.

 

From The Herald, March 10, 2017

 

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Ímar, Afterlight (Big Mann)

 

The latest product of Glasgow’s thriving traditional music session scene, Ímar releases its debut album having already had the distinction of playing its first billed gig as the opening act at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. Listening to the standard of the quintet’s playing individually and collectively on this all-instrumental set, the group could easily be headlining such events by now.

 

There’s a potency to the music here that puts Ímar in the tradition of great bands such as the Bothy Band and Lunasa but with a touch of the Isle of Man integrated into the Irish accent that uilleann piper Ryan Murphy (the only actual Irishman involved) and concertinist Mohsen Amini’s musical training brings to the sound.

 

With enough awards and championships between its players to warp the strongest mantelpiece the band has pedigree but it’s the way this accomplishment is combined into a group ethic that particularly impresses. The energy that’s seemingly bursting to let loose is tempered by a variety of instrumental formations and an attention to pacing that showcases the tunes’ melodic strength, and even when the floodgates open the effect is all the more exhilarating for the underlying control and musicality.

 

From The Herald, February 17, 2017

 
 

BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2017, City Halls, Glasgow

 

Fiddler Charlie Stewart became the seventeenth winner of Hands up for Trad’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year title on Sunday in a strongly contested final.

 

Stewart, from Glenfarg in Perthshire, played a beautifully paced slot that showcased his individuality, marvellous tone, a wonderful range of attack and expression and all-round musicality.

 

His final set, including Phil Cunningham’s reel The Girls at Martinfield, illustrated Stewart’s ability to create excitement without racing and his own air, Onions, despite its apparently haphazardly chosen title, was played with superb sensitivity and a lovely coda of harmonics and blue notes.

 

What came across particularly, however, was the sense of someone who had absorbed the tradition and was in the process of taking it forward. Where he takes it from here, as he also studies double bass on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course, will be interesting indeed.

 

All six finalists acquitted themselves very well and served up a concert that was full of variety and differing personalities. Gaelic singer Kim Carnie quickly established a natural rapport with the audience and sang both nimbly and movingly.

 

Ella Munro’s bright demeanour came over clearly as she sang with humour and strong choruses, and Iona Fyfe’s Doric singing matched traditional character with musical development and an easy populism in her singing of Violet Jabob’s Baltic Street.

 

There was no shortage of stagecraft in the other two instrumental presentations as accordionist Grant McFarlane entertained with confident playing across the tempo spectrum and a surprise gift of pink wigs, and Dougie McCance rocked the house with accomplished piping and a great understanding with percussionist Iain Sandilands.

 

From The Herald, February 7, 2017

 

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Basco & Talisk, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

 

The standing ovation for opening act, Talisk, wasn’t just a reward for overcoming adversity, although a broken fiddle string and malfunctioning guitar pedal didn’t help the Glasgow trio. This was a very impressive set from a group that’s developing all the time and when it puts its collective foot to the floor creates an exciting sound that, in this case literally, drags an audience out of its seats.

 

It’s not all about hardcore, hard-edged speed freakery either. Variations in colour, dynamics and harmonic ideas from fiddle, concertina and guitar and the integration of systems music with traditional tune forms makes for an absorbing listen. They’re good fun to be around, too, with their unguarded comments about tune origins, and have a promising emerging strand in guitarist Craig Irving’s vocals to temper the instrumental intensity.

 

Those who have caught Scandinavian marvels Dreamers Circus over the past two Celtic Connections would have recognised their cittern player, Ale Carr, stage left with Basco. A Danish-Swedish-Australian quartet, whose spokesman, Hal Parfitt-Murray, was actually born in Aberdeen, Basco have many of Dreamers Circus’ qualities, playing beautifully realised compositions, often featuring intricately interlinking melodies on fiddles, viola, mandolin, accordion, and Carr’s rhythmically assertive cittern.

 

Accordionist Anders Ringgaard Andersen also adds very effective trombone to arrangements and Parfitt-Murray’s adaptations of traditional songs Sir Patrick Spens and My Son John showcase his own characterful voice and the collective’s beautifully layered harmony singing. A classy performance that was harmed not a jot by the closing A Flat in Berlin’s having been written in envious response to Carr’s other band’s insanely addictive A Room in Paris.

 

From The Herald, January 30, 2017

 

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The Transports, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

 

Back in 1975 folk singer and songwriter Peter Bellamy learned the story of two thieves, Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes who, in the 18th century, had met in Norwich jail while waiting to be transported to, it turned out, Botany Bay. They were the lucky ones as Cabell’s two accomplices were hanged and unlikely as it might now seem, he and Holmes were able to cohabit in prison, where Holmes had a son.

 

Bellamy took his own life, aged forty-seven, in 1991 but he left a mighty legacy in the folk opera that he developed from this piece of local history and this handsome new production both serves his memory splendidly and gives the Transports contemporary resonance. 

 

It’s quite a tale, showing bleak inhumanity but also heroic humaneness, and narrator Matthew Crampton strikes just the right balance between informing and entertaining as, despite some grim statistics and all too apt comparisons with today’s mass migration, the show manages to be both tragedy and romp.

 

There are excellent individual performances, especially from Greg Russell in the roles of the pompous know-all who recommends Botany Bay as the destination and the turnkey who persuades the home secretary to let Cabell and Holmes take their son with them. 

 

This is, though, essentially an ensemble success with instrumental arrangements drawing fiddles, frets, cello, accordions and reeds together appositely and the cast of ten’s voices uniting in magnificently lusty, rousing chorus on a triumphant Green Fields of England. It’s just setting off on tour but I don’t think it’s giving too much away to those who haven’t seen previous incarnations to mention Cabell’s transformation from convict to chief constable.

 

From The Herald, January 27, 2017

 

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Chris Stout & Catriona McKay, RSNO Centre, Glasgow

 

The programming was perfect. Three Swedish musicians, playing a string-supplier’s dream of five-string fiddle, nyckelharpa, its smaller cousin, the moraharpa, and a sixteen-string harpguitar, brought baroque-flavoured folk tunes into the here and now with a gorgeous collective tone, beautifully executed arrangements and wonderful joie de vivre.

 

Just how apt Emma Ahlberg, Ek Daniel and Niklas Roswall were as the opening act was underlined when they joined Chris Stout and Catriona McKay for an encore that married spontaneity and mastery, two of the ingredients that make Shetland fiddler Stout and harper supreme McKay such a thrilling partnership.

 

Just as the Swedes give old tunes a current glow, Stout and McKay draw on the tradition and look for new places to take it. Melodies are examined and explored in every nuance in a conversation that sees roles interchange across a dynamic range that can move through the gears from feather-bowed murmur to choppy harp storm-cum-raging fiddle torrent or switch between these extremes in a fingersnap.

 

The sense that they might, at times, be communing with the spirits was enhanced by Stout’s Tingaholm, its keening fiddle intro conveying the atmosphere of the old Norse parliament’s Shetland location, whereas a reel for contemporary dedicatee, concert pianist Barry Douglas, suggested carousal possibilities with palpable physicality and verve and stop-on-a-sixpence mutual understanding.

 

What lies behind an unnamed Brazilian tune wasn’t vouchsafed but its feeling of longing – or saudade, as its writer or subject might put it – along with the ease with which they slipped into the joint finale’s polska confirmed that the immense depth of expression that Stout and McKay impart is remarkably transferable.

 

From The Herald, January 23, 2017

 

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Shooglenifty: A Night for Angus, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

 

Not for the first time Celtic Connections brought fellow musicians, family, friends and fans together to honour a life that ended too soon. Sometimes it truly seems as if some higher programming authority is at work.

 

Angus R Grant’s was a life well lived. Just from the very droll allusions to serial postal addresses in Ross Martin’s splendid narrative as master of ceremonies, anyone unfamiliar with the kenspeckle Shooglenifty fiddler would soon have realised we were here to celebrate a character.

 

It was, as the evening generously broadcast, a life lived through music, much of it played in sessions with the players from various howffs present. From Lochaber to Leith to Birnam to Galicia to India, Grant roamed in search of a tune, and in Galicia not only did he find the inspiration for one of his – and Shooglenifty’s – best loved tunes, 250 to Vigo, but another of the band’s favourites, Venus in Tweeds apparently did wonders for the local birth rate.

 

In return, Galicia’s contribution here was vibrant and beyond life-affirming, all vocal verve and percussive energy. Gaelic puirt a beul and Rajasthani praise singing, Talking Heads, courtesy of Grant’s sister, Fiona, niece Eva and crew, and the inimitable, bagpipe-influenced fiddle style of his father, Aonghas coexisted naturally in a programme that also delivered fiddlers galore to play Grant’s lines, if not presume to fill his shoes, as the Shooglenifty groove shuffled and shoogled.

 

As Grant’s back-projected image was repeatedly saluted, two more moments stood out: Duncan Chisholm’s heartfelt solo fiddle first-half coda and Allan MacDonald’s lone piper second-half intro, both the very definition of soul music.

 

From The Herald, January 23, 2017

 

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Mànran, An Dà Là (Mànran)

 

The confidence and togetherness that come from spending long periods on the road underscores the rousing Gaelic folk-rock on these twelve tracks. An dà là literally translates as ‘the two days’ but it’s also an expression meaning great change and reflects change in Mànran itself, in terms of personnel, and in the world around us.

 

Ewen Henderson’s title track, with its call and response lines, uses Gaelic and English to call for greater understanding and compassion and addresses Donald Trump in his mother’s native tongue. Elsewhere, Ayrshire-born Canadian songwriter David Francey’s poetic Pandora’s Box and Californian singer-songwriter Ben Harper’s I Shall Not Walk Alone are co-opted into the Mànran sound as to the manner born alongside an older bardic response to forced emigration from Islay and a more humorous song of wifely chastisement.

 

As with the instrumental tracks, the arrangements of accordion, fiddle, pipes and flute offer both variety of colour and energy and the integration of melody instruments with the excellent rhythm section makes for a consistently satisfying listen.

 

From The Herald, January 13, 2017

 

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Blair Douglas, Behind the Name (Macmeanmna)

 

The parallels between the Skye-based composer, accordionist and keyboards player Blair Douglas and his late friend, singer-songwriter Michael Marra are striking. In his note to his air for Marra, Douglas says: “He touched souls with his powers of observation and penchant for championing the underdog.”

 

Douglas could just as easily be describing himself. Like Marra, Douglas is often moved to compose and he observes the essence of peoples’ characters in soulful melodies. These thirteen splendid tracks celebrate neighbours and poets, soldiers and rock stars, priests and footballers, even a cockerel, and they naturally encompass the worlds of pipe band, ceilidh band, Cajun dance floor and African chant.

 

Marshalling string section, horns, guitars, pipes, harp and mandolin, Douglas adds details such as the very Italian interlude in his salute to Scottish-born footballer Giovanni Moscardini with masterly flair but also says much in a few notes. His pibroch for the Skye-born heroes of Festubert, if it hasn’t already, is surely destined to enter the tradition, as will many another composition here.

 

From The Herald, December 30, 2016

 

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Sarah-Jane Summers & Juhani Silvola, Widdershins (Dell Daisy)

 

The Scottish-Scandinavian alliance continues with this Norway-based fiddle and guitar partnership’s second album.

As with another of the teams with connections from this side of the North Sea, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Inverness-born fiddler Sarah-Jane Summers and Finnish guitarist Juhani Silvola pay due respect to their native traditions but are imaginative in their arrangements and pretty fearless in taking the music out into the margins.

Summers’ rugged title track borrows a word she learned from her grandfather but it’s unlikely that her esteemed fiddle teacher, the late Donald Riddell, is responsible for the wild, atmospheric and exciting bowing style she brings to its more adventurous developments.

Silvola’s playing ranges from dainty and nimble to swashbuckling as the pair show a superb musical understanding and an easy interchange between melodist and accompanist roles.

An album full of contrasts – as illustrated by the delicately picked and pizz’ed Silver Spring Reel and the robust, characterful strathspey Donald Morison – Widdershins makes a great case for seeing Summers and Silvola in concert.

From The Herald, December 2, 2016

 

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Barbara Dymock, Leaf an’ Thorn (own label)

 

Barbara Dymock shows several ways of keeping traditional songs alive and thriving on this, her second album in a career that stretches back to the 1970s.

 

Working with multi-instrumentalist Christopher Marra, Dymock lends the Wife of Usher’s Well a Malian groove and gives Tibbie Fowler and Dainty Doonby lusty dance settings but she also understands the power of simplicity, as her lovely unaccompanied reading of Helen of Kirkconnel underlines.

 

She has a warm, clear, mature voice and as well as giving variously spring-fingered and atmospheric arrangements with instrumentation including fiddle, recorder and accordion alongside his own guitar, mandolin and melodica, Marra provides two particularly fine vehicles for her in his settings of Violet Jacob’s The Heid Horseman and The Brig.

 

Sung with superb character by Dymock, these could easily follow the late Jim Reid’s adaptation of Jacob’s The Wild Geese into the folk repertoire and it’s good to hear Dymock also giving plaintive voice to the Corries’ Lord Yester and infusing The Banks of Inverurie with realism.

 

From The Herald, October 21, 2016

 

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Lynched, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh
 

Success certainly hasn’t gone to Lynched’s heads. All the attention that the Dublin quartet has attracted over the past year hasn’t diverted them from their generally amiable disposition. They arrived on the Queen’s Hall stage, which was quite a step up figuratively from their previous visit to Edinburgh when they played a house concert just twelve months or so ago, and they immediately spotted people they knew by name.

 

You get the impression that such camaraderie is important. They want to stay rooted because that’s the way their music is, learned from real people and sung in a way that makes it clear that it’s dear to them.

 

They’re unusual for a young Irish group in that they concentrate predominantly on songs. Many of their predecessors have majored on jigs, reels, slides, hornpipes and airs played with proudly attained finesse, dynamism and virtuosity. Lynched have instrumental skills on uilleann pipes, whistles, concertina, fiddle and guitar, and they tag tunes on here and there, but they’re more about the craic and telling the story.

 

Sometimes the story is an epic. The Tri-coloured House stretched out to some ten effectively moody minutes and Radie Peat’s telling of The Old Man From Over the Sea – possibly the most shiftless, feckless individual ever to become a hero in song – conjured up quite an atmosphere over Cormac Mac Diarmada’s strumming fiddle pattern.

 

The effect can be pleasantly lulling but there are bold, stirring examples also and daft - nay, earthy music hall ditties such as Little Tommy Tucker, sung a cappella, while brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch gave unashamed Dublin voice to the catchy, anthemic Cold Old Fire.

 

From The Herald, October 17, 2016

 

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The Gloaming, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

 

A man dreams about a beautiful woman and when he wakes up he’s miffed that she’s not there beside him. It’s a story as old as time, told in a fourteenth century poem, but its arrangement into the not quite so romantically titled Song 44 is the perfect example of how the Gloaming present the Irish tradition as forged-in-the-moment contemporary art.

 

This, the group’s second visit to Scotland but first time in Edinburgh, was a glorious coming together of pub session and concert hall performance, of improvised sound and colour and familiar dance tune forms, and of beautifully sung poems and not altogether poetically poised tune introductions.

 

Pianist Thomas Bartlett’s mirthfully compass-less effort at addressing the audience was about the only time he sounded unsure. His presence gives the Gloaming not just a wide harmonic canvas but also percussive shade and impetus. There are times when the two fiddlers, Martin Hayes and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, players with totally distinctive tones, seem to phase in and out of the foreground or become a bowed rhythm section as Bartlett’s inventive touch, without taking over, captures the attention.

 

Hayes and O Raghallaigh are masters of the painterly approach, daubing brushstrokes behind Iarla O Lionaird’s calm, richly expressed singing, and also of the slow, teased out build. Tunes don’t so much gain momentum as swell in waves, with O Lionaird’s harmonium and Dennis Cahill’s subtle guitar playing adding to Bartlett’s backdrops. The net effect is measured, gradated and ultimately as gorgeously uplifting as it is sonically pleasing, with the fiddles fading into a kind of piano tone poem that left droplets of sound hanging in the air.

 

From The Herald, September 26, 2016

 

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Ross & Ali, Symbiosis (Great White)

Although not quite up there – yet – with Kylie & Madonna as artists who are recognised globally by their first names, Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton need no surnames in the folk and traditional music worlds.

 

This, their first album as a duo, is the product of a twenty years and counting friendship that’s taken them from the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band to the Treacherous Orchestra, both bands adventurers in their own way, and shows a partnership that’s rugged and inventive yet true to the tradition.

 

This is music with atmosphere, energy and passion, three ingredients that are splendidly balanced as Ainslie and Hutton move from whistles and pipes to fretted instruments and harmonium, creating a formidable engine room alone and with bass, bodhran and snare drum accompaniment.

 

Like the main protagonists, each largely self-composed tune set is given a one-word title. Smiler grips with its momentum. Pongu opens more gently. Grans marches and Loch dances. It’s all of a piece, though, and grows with each listen.

 
 
From The Herald, September 9, 2016
 
 
 
 
 

Tannara, Trig (Tannara)

 

The first album from young Scottish traditional band Tannara delivers all the hallmarks that were apparent during their appearance at Tradfest in Edinburgh earlier this year with a few subtle embellishments added in the studio.

 

A quartet comprising fiddle, guitar, harp and accordion, they’ve developed their own group identity, playing smart, imaginative arrangements with verve and bringing items by established composers such as Andy Cutting, Eilidh Shaw and Pete Clark naturally into sets alongside original tunes that show character to match the tales behind them.

 

This is a very well-balanced team, with their instrumental fire power enhanced by Owen Sinclair’s slightly unusual but effective use of electric guitar on occasion. Sinclair also adds to the group’s distinctive quality with a bold, individual singing style.

 

Three Ravens is a notably eerie take on an already atmospheric traditional ballad and if Deid Fish sounds unpromising, the brisk, brightly melodic tune that bears the name is a winner and a fine example of music drawn from the tradition but moving confidently forward.

 

From The Herald, July 29, 2016

 

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Réalta, Clear Skies (Réalta Music)

 

The second album from Northern Irish quintet Réalta shows the maturity and togetherness of a now well-travelled ensemble while still bursting with the barnstorming spirit that won them a Danny Award at Celtic Connections in 2012.

 

Comprising a frontline of twin uilleann pipes (alternating with whistles and flute), accompanied essentially by guitar, double bass and bodhran, they continue in the tradition of the Bothy Band and Lúnasa, adding touches of their own to Asturian and Breton music as well as Irish tunes both old and new.

 

Their atmospheric take on Paddy Ryan’s Dream underlines their ability to play with measured imagination as well as fire and songs in English and Gaelic from bassist and assorted frets player Dermot Mulholland and guitarist-pianist Deirdre Galway add character and charm alongside the sheer soulful passion and expressive vigour of Conor Lamb and Aaron O’ Hagan’s piping.

 

Slow air Úr-Chnoc Chéin Mhic Cáinte is a particular, blue note-rich treat but the high standard is consistent across all eleven tracks.

 

From The Herald, July 8, 2016

 

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Christy Moore, Lily (Sony)

 

Almost fifty years of recording experience, and longer still as a singer who values words and their relationship with a melody, lie behind this quiet masterpiece from one of the great troubadours of our times.

 

From the opening, softly descriptive Mandolin Mountain to the eerie, almost aboriginal-sounding recitation of Dave Lordan’s powerful Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains nine tracks later, Christy Moore is on magisterial form, a storyteller par excellence whose soft, precise enunciation makes every syllable sound like a personal communication with the listener.

 

His topics may be familiar – injustice interspersed with the craic – but his sources are seldom entirely predictable and just as he visited the Pink Floyd songbook with utter credibility on a previous album, here Peter Gabriel’s Wallflower allows him to create a classic Moore moment.

 

The accompaniments are beautifully judicious, with Máirtín O Connor’s accordion flowing inspirationally through Lightning, Bird, Wind, River, Man, and alongside ballads from Ireland’s current poets, Green Grows the Laurel reminds us of Moore’s unimpeachable feeling for traditional song.

 
 

Jarlath Henderson, Hearts Broken, Heads Turned (Bellows Records)

 

Jarlath Henderson hinted he could sing, as well as playing startlingly good uilleann pipes and whistle, on his 2013 Air-Fix album with fellow piper and co-leader Ross Ainslie. The slightly tentative, boyish voice then has given way, however, to something altogether more confident and forthright, if still with a certain youthful charm and innocence at times on this, Tyrone-born Henderson’s first release as an artist in his own right.

 

It’s an auspicious debut, with Henderson sounding like a young Paul Brady on ‘Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure’ and elsewhere bringing to mind Andy Irvine’s gentleness and Len Graham’s sensitive pacing, but he’s not walking in anyone’s shadows as he and his band give each of these eight traditional songs a contemporary setting of its own that retains and respects its integrity.

 

There’s great variety of arrangement here, bringing acoustic guitar, fiddle, piano and bass together with subtly introduced electronica and samples and beautifully judged horns. ‘Young Edmund in the Lowlands Low’ becomes an epic of atmosphere, drama and nuance, Henderson’s voice piping boldly over drones, keys and electronic sounds before the pipes themselves make a grand and telling entrance. ‘The Slighted Lover’ dances a jazz waltz. ‘Fare Thee Well Lovely Nancy’ is reborn as a 21st century shanty, and ‘The Mountain Streams Where the Moorcocks Crow’ boasts marvellously uplifting vocals buoyed by energetically riffing bass, searching fiddle and pipes, and wafting brass chorale.

 

From Songlines magazine, June 2016

 

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Allan MacDonald & Neil Johnstone, The Bruce 700

 

Commissioned by Stirling Council to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and premiered in Stirling’s Albert Halls in June 2014, The Bruce 700 finds piper Allan MacDonald working on a much larger canvas than the intimate, voice-and-smallpipes-as-one format he has made his own to deserved international acclaim.

 

It’s an ambitious, stirring work, involving pipe band, fiddle ensemble, singers, percussionists and a core of traditional, jazz and classical musicians, and one that MacDonald and his co-composer, arranger and orchestrator, cellist Neil Johnstone marshal with considerable narrative skill here on a subsequent performance at Celtic Connections the following January.

 

The full range of emotions comes into play, from the defiantly upbeat march into battle to Kathleen MacKinnes’s splendidly raw keening in its aftermath and while the battle itself is depicted with sonic realism, throughout the work there’s also a soothing quality and a warmth of spirit, the latter especially in Rod Paterson’s singing of Scots Wha Hae and the subsequent Saorsa (Freedom).

 

From The Herald, May 2016

 

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Talisk, Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh

 

Edinburgh’s annual celebration of the traditional arts, Tradfest brought down the curtain on its main programme on Sunday with an afterhours finale-party. In truth, however, the party had started in the same venue quite a bit earlier as young trio Talisk fired up the final night audience with their energy-intense take on the tradition.

 

They make an unlikely source of a wall of sound, playing concertina, fiddle and guitar with quite a studious demeanour. There’s no jumping around onstage but inside, they’re clearly rampant and their relationship with their audience is a tacit bond of mutual encouragement, with spontaneous outbreaks of clapping and dancing in response to the music’s lift spurring the musicians on to lift it further.

 

It’s an exciting, exuberant performance but what adds to the listening experience is the way the music is arranged. In the absence of songs to vary the mood and tempo, they employ passages of reflection and trance-like motifs or offer a quiet melodic introduction, such as on Highlander’s Revenge or The Mill House, learned from fiddlers Bruce MacGregor and John Martin respectively, and develop it into a rockin’ powerhouse.

 

The building effect and overall musical shape are enhanced by fiddler Hayley Keenan’s splendidly expressive steadiness whatever the tempo and guitarist Craig Irving’s rhythmical and dynamic variation as they sit on either side of Mohsen Amini’s potentially volcanic concertina playing. Their roles are interchangeable, too: any one - or two - of them can take the melodic line or support it with a variety of long notes, harmonic interventions or crisp propulsion. Quite a gig and quite a gauntlet to throw down to the party afterwards.

 

From The Herald, May 11, 2016

 

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Tradfest 2016

 

Anyone looking for evidence that traditional music is a living thing that relates to its environment would have found it on Wednesday at the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The hub of the capital’s annual Tradfest celebration of the traditional arts, the Centre’s handsome, intimate theatre was playing host to two of the many young bands who have embraced this music with enthusiasm and are helping it to thrive as an art form that’s cool with their peers.

 

Traditional tunes tend to follow long-established formats – the jigs, reels, strathspeys and marches that have set feet dancing for generations – and there are published collections and recorded archives full of examples that place them in a certain era. Future generations happening across Glasgow-based The Lowground and Highland quartet Tannara’s recordings will find dedications to dead heroines from Game of Thrones and commemorations of mobile phone mishaps.

 

These were played with skill, the Lowground pitching an essential concertina-bodhran-guitar instrumentation into an impressively energetic ferment that occasionally threatened to spin out of control and Tannara blending fiddle, guitar, harp and accordion with sensitivity, dynamic variation and tonal awareness. If the latter’s treatments of traditional songs didn’t make quite the same impact, they were still on the right lines.

 

Tradfest serves a broad remit. Music, dance, storytelling, crafting, walking tours, talks, and film are all included and while the main programme has come and gone for another year, international cinema presentations continue at the Filmhouse until Thursday [May 12]. The music is also international, sometimes in the same set of tunes, as was the case with County Roscommon-born accordionist Alan Kelly, who appeared with his Gang at the Pleasance on Thursday and drew a good-sized attendance despite the counter-attraction of another leading Irish band, Altan, playing across town.

 

Kelly’s repertoire draws on Scottish, Shetland, Galician, Breton and East European sources as well as the Irish music he grew up with and his group, featuring flautist and singer Steph Geremia, guitarist Ian Carr and double bassist Kevin McGuire, segued from reel to gavotte to polka with consummate accomplishment and an ensemble sound that was sumptuous and expressive and gave an impression of relaxed ease even when the tempo reached top gear and the time signatures got tricky. Geremia’s natural singing of songs including the old Clancy Brothers favourite Journey’s End added a warm counterpoint to this instrumental expertise.

 

If tunes inspired by Game of Thrones placed Tradfest in the here and now, then Ontario’s Sheesham and Lotus and Son’s presentation of old-time fiddle tunes and depression era ditties in the shadowy glow of the Storytelling Centre’s footlights took us back to 1929 – literally through the song of the same name. Except these are musicians who live what they play and they deliver entertainment by the gallon, even when – no, especially when - the medium is a miniature bottle of Jack Daniel’s and two jaw-harps.

 

The “suite”, as they eventually decided it should be described, which featured this instrumentation was a world premiere piece de resistance among an otherwise well rehearsed set of routines that also carried the spark of spontaneity and improvisation. Kazoo and fiddle combinations, harmonica-horn (a kind of brass elephant’s trunk arrangement) and sousaphone sketches, broken-hearted banjo blues, dancing tunes driven by the fiddler’s dancing feet, and a demonstration of ham-boning, or body percussion, that went far beyond virtuosic flowed from these three medicine show musician-magicians. And as they took pleasure in pointing out, among the blues and rags and other indigenous American song forms, fiddle tunes learned from Kentuckians and North Carolinans by the names of Campbell and MacNeil were being brought home – with added character.

 

From The Times, May 9, 2016

 

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The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Deliverance (NFB)

 

The second album from the Shetland-Norway-Sweden fiddle axis reflects the developing relationship between three players who have been touring together since 2009 but also shows the essential compatibility in the traditions they come from.

 

Nowhere is this better illustrated than on Halls Lilla Vals, a tune that was composed by a Swedish fiddler who thrived in the first half of the twentieth century, Jan-Erik Hall, and yet could easily have come from the Shetland or even the north-east of Scotland tradition.

 

Hall’s countryman and namesake, Anders Hall, Norwegian Olav Luksengård Mjelva, who has composed half of these tracks, and Shetlander Kevin Henderson blend their natural understanding with great imagination, producing arrangements that encompass a fantastic range of tones and approaches.

 

Mjelva’s initially haunting In the Lounge grows into something more celebratory with its big riffs and swirling melodiousness and the keening, hymn-like Flinken builds into a marvellously atmospheric blast of harmony and sustained cross-string bowing. Altogether a model example of tradition in joyful, superbly inventive transition.

 

From The Herald, April 29, 2016

 

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Simon Thoumire & Ian Carr, Edinburgh Folk Club

 

It’s tempting to imagine where Simon Thoumire might be had he concentrated on his own concertina-playing career, and particularly his partnership with guitarist Ian Carr, instead of devoting so much time to the promotion of Scottish folk music via his Scots Trad Music Awards, Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year competition and other projects.

 

As anyone who heard Thoumire and Carr when they themselves were young traditional musicians to watch will recall, they were very much on the same wavelength from first meeting. The nonchalant virtuosity they shared then remains and in terms of creativity and inventiveness only Scandinavians Dreamers’ Circus on the current scene come to mind as rivals, and they’re taking the music in a completely different direction.

 

As both interpreters and composers Thoumire and Carr are daring and possibly borderline bonkers. Two tunes from the Scottish dance band repertoires of Bobby Crowe and Ian Powrie ventured left-field and then some. Yet through the restless exploration of melodic possibilities and the brilliantly pulled off detail of arrangement that can suggest the influence of variously Steve Reich, Bon Jovi, Gentle Giant, Chic, and Django Reinhardt, there’s a genuine feeling for the music on both players’ part and extraordinary harmonic-rhythmic awareness and nous in Carr’s empathic six string orchestrations.

 

Each set of tunes brought its own adventure. One tied a hint of Weather Report’s Birdland together with beautiful descending unison lines and a slightly odd Carr vocal. Another was a march but at its very own winsome pace and another danced a reel at approximately mach one tempo while still retaining bags of character. They’re touring Scotland now. Go see.

 

From The Herald, March 4, 2016

 
 
 

Iain MacFarlane, Gallop to Callop (Old Laundry)

 

When Iain MacFarlane joined the original Blazin’ Fiddles line-up in 1998 his West Highland fiddling style, with its strong piping influence, and his awareness of group dynamics went on to become significant assets for some fifteen years.

 

MacFarlane had grown up in Glenfinnan immersed in Highland music and had already worked with Boys of the Lough, and all of this experience tells on this, his first recording under his own name.

 

On one level, Gallop to Callop shows what happens when MacFarlane invites his in-laws (his wife, Ingrid, and three siblings add clarsach, piano, fiddle, harmonium, and pipes to the ensemble) and some pals round for a tune. On another level, though, it’s a great showcase for MacFarlane’s own mighty fiddling character. Or characters, because alongside joyful jig, march and quickstep selections, flat-out exuberant, marvellously fluent reels and his swinging, swashbuckling phrasing and impudent pizzicato notes on the traditional test piece, The Excelsior, sits slow air playing of fabulous sensitivity and genuine heart.

 

From The Herald, February 26, 2016

 

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Buttons & Bows, The Return of Spring (own label)

Irish quartet Buttons & Bows’ Celtic Connections 2016 double bill with Boys of the Lough was a real meeting of like minds. Although the Buttons & Bows trademark isn’t quite as long established as the Boys’, being a mere stripling of thirty-three, the group has earned a similar reputation for the richness and character of its melody playing, its fidelity of phrasing and rhythmical detail and its general warmth of performance. Featuring fiddle playing brothers Manus and Seamus McGuire, the great De Dannan and Patrick Street accordionist Jackie Daly, and Garry O’Briain on guitar, mandocello and piano, the group draws on repertoire both old and new, with all four contributing original tunes, including O’Briain’s aptly named Sweet Aibhilin, to complement material that’s long marinaded in the tradition. Whatever its provenance, the music here sings and flows naturally, with Manus McGuire’s lovely, descriptive Fort Dunree, Daly’s swinging polka for fellow box player Joe Burke and a superbly celebratory Templeglantine Slide among the immediate highlights.

From The Herald, February 12, 2016

 

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Skipinnish & Friends, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If this jumping full house is what happens when Skipinnish reach number 46 in the UK download singles charts, then here’s to the response should they ever go to the very top of the pops.

There’s much more to the Highland band drawing one of the largest attendances at Celtic Connections 2016 than last summer’s chart excitement. While their captain, accordionist Angus MacPhail, suggested that some 2,500 of those present had turned up to hear special guests, Waterboys and Saw Doctors founders Leo Moran and Anto Thistlethwaite, and the other hundred or so were Skipinnish fans, in reality the success was testament to the hard work MacPhail especially has put in over the last decade and more, building the Skipinnish brand and earning a reputation across the Highlands and beyond for delivering real-deal Highland music with both a rich sense of tradition and a contemporary relevance.

If Leo and Anto did a fine job of warming up the audience with their singalongs and mischief, it was Skipinnish’s Highland hoolie that ultimately had them on their feet, dancing in the aisles even. Superb musicianship, with a three-man pipes and whistles team joining MacPhail and Campbeltown fiddle legend Archie McAllister as the melodic focus, and the strong voice and irrepressible presence of Robert Robertson ensured quality as well as commitment, light and shade.

The poignant story of HMY Iolaire and its images of toys washed up among the bodies on Lewis beaches was beautifully told by Robertson and Caitlin Smith, one of three guest Gaelic singers, and the more celebratory, anthemic The Ocean of the Free maintained both the maritime connection and the high standard of new material the band is adding to its traditional roots.

Their heroes, Runrig’s Alba and their own hit, Walking on the Waves, gave the “all rise” signal and as band and audience were captured on the onstage screen, which had added strong images to the music throughout the set, Robertson’s choirmaster role was quickly dispensed with and the roof was duly, and metaphorically, raised.

From The Herald, February 1, 2016

 

Celtic Fiddle Festival with Finlay MacDonald & Chris Stout, RSNO Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The RSNO Centre has been hanselled, Celtic Connections style. The handsome, recently opened auditorium has had its first taste of the drolleries that come as an entertaining bonus to the frequently exquisite musicianship of Celtic Fiddle Festival.

CFF themselves had a new acquisition, with Charlie McKerron, of Capercaillie and Session A9 giving his first performance with them and restoring a marvellously cultured Scottish accent to a group that began almost a quarter of a century ago with the sadly now  departed Johnny Cunningham aboard.

Cunningham was celebrated here, as were Breton and Quebecois dance metres, Irish fiddle heroes and Cunningham’s Silly Wizard colleague, Andy M Stewart, the singer being remembered through McKerron’s lovely reading of Scott Skinner’s Cluny Castle Inverness-shire. As ever with CFF, the music was played with expertise and sensitivity in inverse proportion to a presentational style that makes it a wonder any notes ever get played at all, let alone with such refinement.

In solo features and ensembles Kevin Burke’s relaxed bowing, Christian Lemaitre’s Breton steeliness, guitarist Nicolas Quemener’s affable adaptability and McKerron’s strathspey character and eloquence produced music with great richness and flair, culminating in a by turns mad and lyrical romp through the late Simon Jeffes’ naturally exuberant Music for a Found Harmonium.

Refinement, exuberance and spontaneity were at the heart of pipes and whistle master Finlay MacDonald and Shetland fiddle virtuoso Chris Stout’s group’s opening slot. This was music from both the pibroch tradition and a contemporary compositional strain delivered with superbly realised dynamics and melodic shape but, above all, pitched to achieve big time excitement.

From The Herald, February 1, 2016

 
 

Just for Gordon/Dreamers’ Circus, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There was never likely to be any doubt about the quality of music presented in Just for Gordon, a concert to mark the tenth anniversary of piping visionary Gordon Duncan’s passing. Not all of the tunes played were written by the prolific Duncan but everyone involved was intent on following the spirit of a man of who let his music speak for him.

From pipe band to solo pipers, here including his brother, Iain, and from Scottish folk groups to the wider world, Duncan exerted an influence and left an indelible impression. It was great to hear stories from those who beat a path to Edradour in search of Duncan tunes and wisdom and worth turning up just to catch sometime bandmate, fiddler Duncan Chisholm caress and pass on The Sleeping Tune to Susana Seivane, playing her native Galician bagpipe, the gaita, both capturing the soulfulness that Duncan exuded.

Jarlath Henderson, playing uilleann pipes, conveyed Duncan’s passion for the Irish instrument superbly and Ross Ainslie, playing border pipes and a direct disciple, relayed the aforementioned spirit with fabulous warmth. In all, a handsome tribute with the star of the show absent but still very much present.

Something of Duncan’s spirit can be found in Scandinavian trio Dreamers’ Circus where ideas are transmitted from imaginations to fingertips to ears with devilish virtuosity and heart-stopping, stop-on-a-sixpence dynamics. Ancient-sounding tunes played on a fiddle made from a clog, gentle ukulele patterns merged with humming accordion and violin, and searching melodies cajoled along by tapped piano strings were just some of the ingredients in an utterly magical set that danced, swung and sang with creative brio.

 

From The Herald, January 26, 2016

 

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Moving Hearts and neXo, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Cause and effect produced the sort of night on Friday for which the Old Fruitmarket was saved from the developers. If Moving Hearts were the trailblazers of fusing tradition with groove and a heartbeat from rock and jazz back in the 1980s, then neXo have taken the idea and made it more global.

Musicians from Scotland, Wales, Galicia, Argentina and Uruguay, songs in four languages and suggestions of further-flung flavours made this a potent scene-setter, with pipes and fiddle flying over brilliantly synchronised tambourine and drum kit rhythms, the soul of tango following guttural, primal-sounding rhythmical Welsh patois, and a feeling of joy and genuine enjoyment flowing from stage to auditorium.

Their tunes aren’t as familiar as what followed but they’re immediate enough to be picked up and joined in with by an audience that was clearly very taken with what it was hearing.

There was a real sense of community, involvement and excitement also with Moving Hearts, who appear to have found several extra gears, increased refinement and added rocking-out enthusiasm in this current incarnation. The traditional element is strengthened by a fabulous frontline that has Mairtin O’Connor’s rich accordion phrasing partnering the redoubtable Davy Spillane’s exquisite uilleann pipes and low whistle playing, enhanced at times by our own Aidan O’Rourke on fiddle, and Donal Lunny’s harmonic energy on bouzouki is rooted by bass guitarist Eoghan O’Neill’s redefining of the term “elegant punch”.

Spillane’s heartfelt longing, singer Mick Hanly’s weathered sincerity, Keith Donald’s impassioned saxophone lyricism and the sure punctuation and detail of drums and percussion as their epic The Lark sang and soared made these heroes’ return absolutely exultant.

 

From The Herald, January 25, 2016

 

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Solas and Dallahan, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It’s a feature of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival that musicians bump into old colleagues, be it at the airport, at hotel reception or in the bar, and decide to renew acquaintance onstage. So it was that banjo master Béla Fleck, who guested on their third album in 1998 and is in town for quite a big concert of his own, slotted into this celebration of Irish-American band Solas’ twentieth anniversary.

Fleck’s arrival was one of the highlights as co-founders, Seamus Egan, on guitar, banjo, whistles and flute, and fiddler Winifred Horan introduced a generous roll call of past and present group members including the able instrumental team of Eamon McElholm (guitar), Donald Clancy (guitar and bouzouki), Mick McAuley (accordion) and Trevor Hutchinson (bass).

The bright, accomplished Solas sound has exerted an influence on bands on this side of the pond, including Edinburgh-based Dallahan, whose opening set of Scots-Irish-Hungarian songs and tunes showed confidence and increasing flair and maturity as a band, and it has also accommodated a possibly even larger turnover of singers than the great vocalists’ production line, De Dannan.

All six singers were present here from the current incumbent, Moira Smiley, back to the original voice of Solas, Karan Casey, who shone with her typically impassioned and clear reading of Sixteen Come Next Sunday.

The nonchalant Fleck aside, there were strong instrumental contributions including Horan’s fine version of Niel Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife, with McElholm switching to piano, and an accordion cameo from McAuley’s sometime deputy, Jonny Connolly before the singers, joined by Mrs Fleck, Abigail Washburn, convened en masse for a spirited finale of Bob Dylan’s Seven Curses.

From The Herald, January 25, 2016

 

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Armagh Pipers Night, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

The Old Fruitmarket stage at the finale was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, with some two dozen musicians, many well-established, others just beginning to make their reputations, and seated on the riser at the back, two special ones, Brian and Eithne Vallely, without whom none of us would have been there.

Twenty-four is a tiny fraction of the musicians who have passed through the Vallelys’ Armagh Pipers Club – we saw a good number of them in back-projected photos – since they started giving music tuition on Monday nights in 1966. Prominent among these graduates are their sons, concertinist Niall, piper Cillian and keyboardist Caoimhin, whose bands, Buille and Lúnasa, along with Flook, whose whistle master Brian Finnegan is another club beneficiary, played sets of their own and expanded to include further club associates.

The spirit in the room was almost palpable and as all three bands and myriad assemblies presented high class jigs, reels and airs we were reminded of the source of this musicality at regular intervals with the images onscreen. Guitarist Ed Boyd, although not an Armagh boy, earned a special commendation as an ever-present onstage, his rhythmical momentum variously powering Buille’s deep in the tradition-meets-spontaneous creativity style, enhancing piper Jarlath Henderson’s sweet singing of The Road to Clady, and forming a robust, imaginative engine room with Trevor Hutchinson’s double bass in the twisting, turning, subtly feinting powerhouse that is Lúnasa.

If having the full company play Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw’s MacLeod’s Farewell was a nice touch, then inviting Brian (pipes) and Eithne (fiddle) Vallely up for a richly orchestra Abbey Reel and Rakish Paddy sealed a superbly memorable night.

From The Herald, January 22, 2016

 

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Freeland Barbour: The Music and the Land, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

It might have been the Glasgow launch of Freeland Barbour’s mighty musical compendium, The Music and the Land, but the Perthshire-born accordionist still found time to let his guests promote their own Celtic Connections shows, with Ross Ainslie contributing an exhilarating tribute to his piping mentor, Gordon Duncan, that was worth turning up to hear in itself.

Barbour’s book covers much more territory than could be condensed into the concert section of this event – the ensuing dance gave him further opportunity to air his compositions. The potted version, however, still managed to travel far and wide geographically and range stylistically from the emotional to the entertaining to the experimental.

Jane Gardner’s keyboard improvisation behind Cailean Maclean’s recitation and translation of Oran Badantarbairt complemented the poem’s dark atmosphere superbly, words and music in turn setting the scene for Barbour’s similarly titled air inspired by Ross & Cromarty, and by contrast a tune Barbour wrote for his Faroe Islander friends, Spaelimenninir I Hoydulum, positively danced along with marvellous colourful vigour.

Entertaining diversions to Hawaii, from compere Billy Kay, and Redcar, where Barbour passed the Silly Wizard accordion baton onto Phil Cunningham, followed the somehow both sorrowful and cheering Remember Them with Gladness, Barbour’s dedication to the aforementioned Gordon Duncan and fiddler Johnny Cunningham, with the recently departed Andy M Stewart added to its roll. There were sobering moments also in special guest Martin Carthy’s cameo as he sang songs for the fallen but this Thelonious Monk of the guitar’s reading of the Harry Line Theme, as with Barbour and Cunningham’s squeeze box summit meeting, emphatically restored the smiles.

From The Herald, January 21, 2016

 

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Ireland 2016: The Chieftains & Special Guests, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If all the people who wanted to appear had turned up there would have been quite an overspill on the Royal Concert Hall stage on Friday. Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder and others all sent their apologies via the irrepressible Paddy Moloney, allegedly. As it was, it was still a spectacle and at times a veritable riotous assembly.

It was, ostensibly, a celebration of the centenary of Dublin’s Easter Rising but to nobody’s surprise it turned out to be that and much more. Moloney has been leading the Chieftains for fifty-three years and is well used to putting guest lists together. Even so, the group’s familiar finale, in which Miss MacLeod’s Reel can be redirected almost anywhere on the compass could have been a concert in itself.

With an orchestra swelling the Chieftains’ sound with admirably authentic smeddum, the usual whistle, flute, fiddle, and bodhran interludes had added companions such as a mini pipe band feature, a Gaelic choir sing-out, Spanish guitar virtuosity, the wonderful Karan Casey slipping seamlessly into a gorgeously heartfelt reading of Andy Irvine’s James Connolly, Lewis’s own Alyth McCormack playing a sweet Hebridean Rita Coolidge to the splendidly weathered Kris Kristofferson, and more.

The concert itself was a travelogue, begun in Dublin through a well-received set by former Dubliners fiddler John Sheehan and singer-guitarist Declan O’Rourke, and ranged across Mexico, famine-era Ireland, Nashville, Galicia and Brittany with a natural energy that picked up even further with the spring-heeled, blurry limbed dance steps of the band’s Canadian fiddler, John Polanski and his brother, Nathaniel and a similarly accomplished and mobile Irish dance troupe.

From The Herald, January 18, 2016

 

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The Carrying Stream, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Celtic Connections 2016 opened with a concert to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Traditional Music and Song Association, an organisation that works away, often under the mainstream media’s radar, to foster the riches that have been passed down the generations.

Among the beneficiaries of its nurturing is the young singer Siobhan Miller, who grew up attending TMSA events and who, as the concert’s musical director, invited a large cast of performers from near and further away and gave them a platform, sometimes to the accompaniment of a capable and discreet house band, sometimes communicating through the power of their voices.

If a toast had been raised before these two ninety-minute sets, it might have been “to absent friends.” Miller herself remembered the great Sheila Stewart, of the Blairgowrie-based traveller family, and the most recent loss, Andy M Stewart, a man who sang Scotland, its history, its geography, and its sense of humour. Kris Drever cited the eloquent Tony Cuffe. Londoner Sam Lee remembered the inestimable Jeanie Robertson through his learning of The Moon Shone on My Bed Last Night from her nephew Stanley. And Steve Byrne, of Malinky, honoured the memory and talent of his fellow Angus native, Jim Reid.

As compere Mark Stephen jollied the evening along, the character that these departed souls had given to the music was continued by performances including Adam McNaughtan’s typically rogue-ish reading of the Soor Mulk Cairt, by Fiona Hunter’s lovely, warm and involving singing of Term Time, and by Irish traveller Thomas McCarthy’s extraordinarily rich telling of the ballad of Lady Margaret.

Both sets opened with those trusted with carrying the music forward, the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland and Feis Ross’s Ceilidh Trail playing with talent and vigour, and moving towards the other end of the spectrum, TMSA stalwart Sheena Wellington reprised her Scottish Parliament reopening take on A Man’s a Man for a’ That, Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham added instrumental vim, and Brian Miller invoked the late Willie Scott in his recitation of the mirthful MacAllister Dances Before the King.

From The Herald, January 18, 2016