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The Gloaming        Ross & Ali      Tannara      Réalta      Christy Moore      Jarlath Henderson     
 
 
 
 
 
The Chieftains       Carrying Stream     Niteworks      Daimh       Ulaid      Cruinn     Battlefield Band      
 
Tony McManus     Casey Sisters     Cara Dillon      Karen Matheson     Chris Wood      
 
 
Sketch      Boys of the Lough      Shooglenifty   Peatbog Faeries     Altan     Le Vent du Nord     
 
 
 
 
 

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, Ferbruary 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, Jan 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

 
 
 

Niteworks, NW (Comann Music)      

Skye-based quartet Niteworks can’t be accused of rushing out their first album. They’ve been developing their sound over a number of years and like fellow islanders Sketch have found a natural way of marrying the Scottish tradition with electronic music. There’s something also of the work of the late Martyn Bennett and expatriate Scot Paul Mounsey in the way they use spoken word and Gaelic song as part of the fabric of the music, which varies from the catchy synth pop of Beul na h-oidhche to the atmospheric grandeur of Taobh Abhainn. Guest singers Kathleen MacInnes, Alasdair Whyte, Deirdre Graham, Donald Macdonald and Laura Donnelly – the last two adding contemporary Scots song and the Americana of Anaïs Mitchell respectively – make strong contributions but it’s no slight to them to say that the most striking voice is that of Sorley Maclean on Somhairle where observations the late, great Gaelic poet made decades ago chime chillingly with Scotland today and make the accompanying music all the more powerfully haunting.

From The Sunday Herald, January 3, 2016

 

Daimh, The Hebridean Sessions (Goat Island Music)     

As of last weekend’s Scots Trad Music Awards the West Highlands and Islands-based quintet Daimh are Scotland’s reigning Folk Band of the Year and it’s a title that their latest album more than justifies. Their music has bags of character, as particularly well illustrated by Gabe McVarish’s fiddling on the Bog an Lochan strathspey and reels set, and their arrangements of pipes, whistles, fiddle and accordion, both as the melodic focus and in support of their most recent addition, Ellen MacDonald’s winsome Gaelic singing, always have an imaginative detail that catches the ear or complements the voice ideally while the engine room of Murdo Cameron’s mandola and Ross Martin’s guitar adds drive or underlines the music’s inherent sense of swing. Recorded over a week-long series of sessions on Mull, Skye and South Uist, the album has an intimate, very direct feel that emphasises the richness of phrasing in both vocal and instrumental selections and a sense of continuity that belies the changes of location.

From The Sunday Herald, December 13, 2015.

 

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John McSherry, Dónal O’Connor & Séan Óg Graham, Ulaid (Ulaid)

The original Ulaid were the people who settled and gave their name to Ulster around the fourth century AD, a fierce-sounding tribe. Their modern day namesakes can sound pretty fierce, too, but in the best possible way. Uilleann piper and whistle player John McSherry and fiddler-keyboardist Dónal O’Connor, both from prominent Irish music families, have pedigree as a partnership and the addition of Séan Óg Graham, from the band Beoga and currently with Shetlanders Fiddlers’ Bid, gives this new group more than a guitar-playing accompanist, as his intro to The Return to Madagascar illustrates. This is state-of-the-art Irish traditional music played with heart, skill, imagination and sensitivity and where even tunes that originated in Sweden, Brittany and Asturias, while retaining their own identities, have a distinct and beguiling brogue. McSherry’s piping can’t help but induce goosebumps - The Ramblers is a particularly good example – and O’Connor’s fiddling has character to spare as he negotiates another reel, The Cottage in the Grove.

From The Sunday Herald, December 6, 2015

 

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Cruinn, Tolbooth, Stirling

There was a choir in the audience as well as small choir onstage as Stirling’s Gaelic speakers, their island origins noted in a special greeting, turned out to hear Cruinn’s first performance at the town’s Tolbooth.

Choruses were swelled without too much encouragement but the main focus undoubtedly fell on the Highland quartet whose singing weaves their four personalities together into a wonderful group sound comprised of still very noticeably distinctive individual tones. The winsomely high keening of Fiona Mackenzie both contrasts with and complements Rachel Walker’s calm, handsome timbre and likewise James Graham’s beautifully smooth, pure intonation alongside Dubliner Brian Ó hEadhra’s  richly characterful baritone.

This is the sound that represented the Gàidhealtachd at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and the song that took them there, the gorgeous, impassioned Manus Mo Rùin with Mackenzie’s singing evoking a bagpipe melody against Ó hEadhra’s  shruti box drone, was just one of the songs that showcased Cruinn’s strong emotional core. Walker’s singing of Griogal Cridhe, lamenting the executed Red Gregor of Glenstrae, got right into the soul of a grieving, wronged widow and Brian Ó hEadhra’s translation of a Hungarian love song into Gaelic, sung to his guitar accompaniment, was another deeply moving item.

It’s by no means all sad and bitter tears, however, and work songs and rowing songs, together with the tale of the young woman married – but not for much longer - to a much older man ensured that the darkness was balanced with lighter, celebratory and mischievous moods, all of them arranged, some a cappella, others to apposite piano and guitar playing, to highlight a truly superb vocal team.

 

From The Herald, November 30, 2015

 

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Battlefield Band, Beg & Borrow (Temple)      

Long-running Scottish group Battlefield Band may have a current link with Ireland in singer-guitarist Sean O’Donnell but the connection goes much further back through band manager-producer Robin Morton whose influence and knowledge permeate this richly annotated celebration of Scotland and Ireland’s shared traditions. It involves talent from further afield than the twelve miles that separate the two countries and while tracks were recorded in Sydney and New Jersey, as well as the band’s spiritual home, Temple in Midlothian, it sounds like everyone’s in the same room, singing of disasters, sweethearts and frolics and playing vigorous reels, harp lullabies and measured dance sets. It’s all of an intimately pitched piece but with highlights including Christine Primrose’s moving Gaelic addendum to The Blantyre Explosion, South Carolina-reared harmonica master Don Meade and New York fiddler Tony Demarco seasoning The Whole Chicken in the Soup set, and the peerless Jim Kilpatrick reconfirming that pipe band drumming can be as emotionally uplifting as the pipes themselves on Gillespie’s Hornpipe.

From The Sunday Herald, November 15, 2015

 

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Tony McManus, Edinburgh Folk Club

If Tony McManus was asked whether he was travelling for business or pleasure on his re-entry into the UK and if, on answering the former, he gave his occupation as entertainer, the trades descriptions authorities would have no argument. Every item in the Canada-based, Paisley-born guitarist’s repertoire comes with an anecdote or some other mirthful observation/bit of fun.

Pipers pass on tunes to McManus with added interest, such as Pipe Major Bill Livingstone recalling his dad’s admonition to him for milking the Lament for Viscount Dundee’s emotions (“For God’s sake, even grief has a tempo”). Harpers’ claims on tunes result in borders being redrawn and where was McManus going with that apparently absent-minded drift into Stairway to Heaven? Into a slew of alternative versions including Strathspey to Heaven, Miles Davis’s So What Stairway to Heaven, and a particularly cheeky Steve Reich-style interpretation.

McManus hadn’t had the best of journeys over and was clearly needin’ his bed, a factor that really only impacted on the two or three songs he included. His fingers were nothing if not alert, though, as he followed beautifully articulated slow airs with jigs and reels that achieved an uncanny level of melodic fluency driven by hammered-on grace notes and thumb-slapped basslines.

Two departed friends, piper Gordon Duncan and fellow guitarist Isaac Guillory, inspired superb tributes, the former’s Sleeping Tune emerging with warmly rounded, elegiac feeling and the latter’s Desert Dance featuring a brilliant call and response of fretted phrases repeated in harmonics as if two guitarists were involved. With Bach and Satie pieces alongside the traditional tunes and bouzouki interlude, it was a wide-ranging masterclass that McManus is repeating around Scotland this week.     

From The Herald, November 9, 2015.

 

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The Casey Sisters, Sibling Revelry (Old Bridge Music)     

At the end of this meeting of arguably Irish music’s foremost family group there’s a suite giving a musical representation of their home town, Bandon in West Cork’s history. It could just as well be a depiction of the Casey Sisters themselves, having grown up as the only traditional music players in town, returning to show the mastery that’s given them global reputations. Thumbing of noses doesn’t sit with the warmth and intimacy that permeates Sibling Revelry, though. This is high-end music-making, virtuosic yet presented in a way that puts the music first, the arrangements geared towards clear melodicism and rich, flowing, soulful expression. Máire (harp, piano, keyboard), Nollaig (fiddle, viola, whistle) and Mairéad (fiddle, whistle, flute) complement each other brilliantly on beautiful airs and superbly measured tune sets and the latter pair’s singing – Nollaig’s slightly wary-sounding on The Bonnie Boy in Blue; Mairéad’s sweet and lovely on A Dhroimeann Donn Dílis – emphasises the sheer depth of feeling they have for the Irish tradition.

From The Sunday Herald, November 1, 2015.

 

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Cara Dillon, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Cara Dillon has confronted her sternest critic. Several times they’ve gone head to head. Despite her young daughter’s protests, though, the singer from Dungiven still sings Come Flying with Me. And why shouldn’t she? It’s a sweet lullaby that Mum sings beautifully and it put her firmly on Disney’s radar (it features in Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue alongside Dillon’s singing of the title song) even if that detail doesn’t impress everyone at home.

There’s every chance, of course, that this is Dillon being economical with the truth because she likes a leg-pull. Did her band really threaten mutiny unless they got to show off? Unlikely but the tunes that turned the spotlight on fiddler Niall Murphy and button accordionist Luke Daniels, both superb players with bags of character, would have backed up their case emphatically if they had.

If Dillon fibs between songs, she’s entirely believable when it matters. Her unaccompanied singing of The Winding River Roe conveyed clear, heartfelt understanding of its homesick expatriate letter-writer’s pining and her storytelling style on songs such as My Donald and Eighteen Years Old confirms her ability to get right inside a narrative and relay it with warm, genuine musicality.

She’s helped in this by her husband, Sam Lakeman, another target of Dillon’s teasing, and his talent for framing her singing in supportive, buoyant arrangements both at the piano and in a two-guitar partnership with the ever apposite Ed Boyd. The songs also are well chosen, with the deeply attractive Shotgun down the Avalanche, the gospel flavoured Bright Morning Star and the soaring Hill of Thieves further stand-outs in a consistently high quality performance.

From The Herald, October 19, 2015

 

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Karen Matheson, Urram (Vertical)     

Karen Matheson’s latest solo album – her first album of all Gaelic material – is inspired by the recent loss of her parents and the music and stories that accompanied their early lives and those of their ancestors. It’s a collection of songs both traditional and from the bardic canon that simultaneously looks inward and outward. This is the voice of Capercaillie exploring and revisiting her roots but with her relaxed, quietly commanding singing partnered superbly by musicians and instruments from outside her tradition. Soumik Datta’s marvellously searching, soulful sarod playing brings out the heartbreak in opening waulking song, Gura mise tha gu dubhach’s dark narrative and the more humorous tale of Ca na dh’fhag thu m’fhichead gini steps all the more lightly as Seckou Keita’s kora dances around Matheson’s lightsome vocal. Elsewhere, Brendan Power’s harmonica and Sorren MacLean’s electric guitar perform similar roles in arrangements that also feature strings, courtesy of Mr McFall’s Chamber, and a well-tempered band - all expertly piloted by pianist, accordionist and producer Donald Shaw.

From The Sunday Herald, October 18, 2015.

 
 
 

Chris Wood, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh                                            

Heaven knows what Chris Wood was hearing onstage. He certainly wasn’t happy. Yet what was reaching these ears was as close as it gets to a perfect union of voice and guitar, lyrics and melody, compassion, irony, realism, wit, and humanity.

Wood has long been the master of furthering the folksong tradition. He knows what came before, through his own research and through watching Martin Carthy closely, and he’s developed a writing style that puts now everyday objects, including mobile phones and ipods, into the narrative as naturally as swords and grey mares feature in ballads.

This ability to find poetry in the commonplace and to document a news story as modern day broadside is matched by a sure melodic sensibility and the wonderful warmth of his singing as well as the roundedness and unshowy invention of his musicianship. His telling of the last day in Jean Charles de Menezes’ life is a brilliant marriage of reportage and empathy carried on a marching guitar accompaniment whose pace somehow emphasises the inevitability, utter waste and harrowing misjudgement of what’s unfolding as police marksmen home in on an innocent young man.

Elsewhere in a repertoire that can spring from an invitation to watch minor league football, the erosion of pensions and watching children go off to college and here drew on Ronnie Laine, Sydney Carter and the great Anon, Wood more than once emerged as Kent’s answer to Antonio Carlos Jobim. It’s too late for Stan Getz to appropriate Wood’s new song with the “so much to defend” refrain but there must be a jazz singer or two who can spin gold from this and other masterpieces.

From The Herald, October 7, 2015.

 

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Gráinne Brady & Tina Jordan Rees, High Spirits (G ’n’ T)     

Fiddler Gráinne Brady and pianist, flautist and whistle player Tina Jordan Rees met at a traditional music session in Glasgow in 2011 and this first full-length album suggests there was an instant rapport. They play together like siblings, possibly bonding on a shared immersion in Irish dance tunes and with a knack for writing new melodies in that idiom with a real spark of individuality and character. All the music here is their own and it showcases not just their instrumental prowess – Brady’s fiddling nimble, strong and expressive; Jordan Rees’s brightly percussive pianism being a particular asset – but also their talent for arrangement, ability to accompany each other and willingness to take ideas beyond traditional tune forms. The sequential 5/8s, Two Mad Cats and Week 15 are impressionistic and imaginative without losing touch with their roots and while guitar, double bass, bodhran and accordion are added here and there, the overall impression is of one mightily self-contained, superbly able duo.

From The Sunday Herald, October 4, 2015.

 

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Scott Wood Band, Upsurge (Oak Ridge)     

Piper Scott Wood’s band has been earning enthusiastic testimonies from festival organisers over the past year or two and this first album wastes no time in showing why. Track one, Spice of Life arrives like a hurricane and although the album reveals plenty of dynamic variations, with Wood switching to whistle at times and giving fiddler Mhairi Mackinnon room to express herself too, overall there’s strong evidence of the excitement and energy the band can create onstage. Bassist Angus Tikka and drummer Mark Scobbie are also the rhythm team for jazz-funk-folk orchestra Fat-Suit and something of that band’s crispness and scope informs these arrangements, especially when added strings swell the sound. Part of Wood’s talent lies in giving established tunes, including Charlie McKerron’s Bulgarian Red, new impetus as well as creating memorable melodies of his own. It’s very much music of the tradition set in a contemporary image and when guest guitarist Davie Dunsmuir takes his epic solo on McCready’s, that image becomes electric in every sense.

From The Sunday Herald, September 20, 2015.

 

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Richard Thompson, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It’s not true: in Guitar Heroes, the closing track of his latest album, Still, and one of several defining moments in his set here, Richard Thompson affects disappointment at not having deciphered how his formative influences worked their magic. On the evidence of the guitar breaks that captured Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry, Hank Marvin and a few others, with elements of Thompson’s own devising added, he’s being way over-modest.

Jeff Tweedy, formerly of Wilco, who produced Still, ranks Thompson as “the ultimate triple threat” for his idiosyncratic, intoxicating guitar playing, a songwriting mastery that creates instantly memorable vignettes and a singing talent that gives these dramas and the characters therein major substance. There’s a fourth threat, though: Thompson’s current band with bass guitarist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome.

With Prodaniuk adding fabulous ballast and Jerome playing with supernatural fluidity, precision and dynamics, Thompson was able to present new songs such as the intense, thunder cloud-ridden Broken Doll and the high-spirited, rocking out All Buttoned Up with the same certainty he brought to classics such as Meet on the Ledge, which formed a mini solo acoustic set with 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, and the gloriously urgent For Shame of Doing Wrong.

Thompson the guitarist was on fire from the opening song, the splendidly scornful That’s Enough where he was joined by his daughter Kami and her partner, singer-guitarist James Walbourne (aka support act The Rails), and just as Walbourne’s presence inspired Thompson, so his bass and drums team propel him into both concise, fevered solos and scorching, brilliantly developed epics. It’s beyond exciting and given the songs’ quality, an utterly transporting experience.

From The Herald, September 7, 2015.

 

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Marie Fielding, An Seisiún (Rumford)     

Marie Fielding is a fiddler and composer who is equally at home in the Scottish dance band scene, where she’s a revered figure, and the folk group environment and if she hasn’t always enjoyed the attention she deserves through the latter sphere, she’s been redressing the balance lately with this album and its predecessor, An Trá, which was nominated for the Best Album 2013 title in both the Scots Trad Music Awards and the National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs’ equivalent. An Seisiún is as warmly relaxed as its name (The Session) and A-list cast, including accordionist Tom Orr, guitarist-producer Donogh Hennessy and bassist Trevor Hutchinson, promise. Fielding and Orr have a great understanding, although it’s on her own Christmas Eve Waltz and Lazy Dayz, with just Hennessy’s accompaniment, that Fielding’s playing and arranging particularly glow. Her delicate but strong solo opening on Martyn Bennett’s lovely “pipe march with a limp”, Polly Rhythm, is another highlight on a collection of honest, high quality music making.

 

From The Sunday Herald, September 6, 2015.

 

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Sketch, Highland Time (Skye)        

Skye-based Sketch continue to take the tradition into a contemporary setting with a second album that aligns excellent piping and fiddling with club beats and programming. It’s fairly full-on, with occasional more reflective moments, but what makes it an enjoyable listen, as well as doubtless very effective dancefloor fuel, is the assortment of textures that percussionist, programmer and chief motivator, Iain Copeland creates for each tune set. Fiddler Neil Ewart’s Taxi for Copeland, for example, uses a rhythmic vocal sound as a dynamic base and a bouzouki-electric guitar pairing gives real impetus to traded whistle and fiddle choruses on Bam the Tanjo. More haunting is the late Fraser Shaw’s splendid, ultimately mesmerising whistle duet with Ali Levack, C Side, and while Darren Maclean’s singing is sometimes used as textural addition as much as a lead vocal, his weaving of the popular Gaelic song Fil-O-Ro into the final pipe set and Maeve Mackinnon’s arrangement of Failte Dhruim Fionn place Gaelic voices at the heart of musical revolution.

From The Sunday Herald, August 23, 2015.

 

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Boys of the Lough, The New Line (BOTL)       

Musicians have arrived and departed from Boys of the Lough over the years but the essential characteristics of this most venerable of traditional bands remain. Tunes played with fidelity and feeling and songs sung with clarity and warmth are what the current quartet delivers here and if it begins with something familiar, the Boys of the Lough reel, revisited from their early days, the sole surviving founding member, singer and flautist Cathal McConnell’s liking for digging deep into his vast store of material alone guarantees new pleasures. McConnell sounds far too innocent to be a criminal on The Boston Burglar but that’s part of his charm, of which the lovely, whistle-led Chase Her Through the Garden delivers the instrumental side. It’s all classy stuff. Breandan Ó Beaglaoigh’s characterful Gaelic singing and energetic box playing, fiddler Kevin Henderson sounding like Martin Hayes’ Shetland cousin on Da Smugglers, and guitarist Garry O’Briain’s feature on Mary Stokes: the new line continuing and continually refreshing the old one.

 

From The Sunday Herald, July 26, 2015.

 

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Shooglenifty, The Untied Knot (Shoogle)     

Shooglenifty are probably as surprised as anyone that they’ve arrived at their 25th anniversary. Their whisky kissed trances and hedonistic reeling didn’t seem built to last when they arrived on the folk and wider music scenes but they’ve survived and thrived by judiciously adding sounds and influences so that, as with this seventh studio album, their music manages the trick of sounding at once familiar and yet fresh. The main new sound here is the voice of Kaela Rowan, who contributes puirt a beul, Indian rhythm syllables and airy vocal improvising to a palette that also accommodates pipes and piano, from guests Ross Ainslie and Dave Milligan respectively, alongside fiddle, mandolin, banjo, electric guitar, bass and drums as the music variously dances, swaggers, marches, evokes some forgotten spaghetti western and hangs in the air like the rather more attractive cousin of Scotch mist. Morocco, Rajasthan, a vocal tribe of unknown origin and Highland village halls all spring to mind as the Untied Knot weaves its enigmatic magic.

From The Sunday Herald, June 28, 2015.

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Peatbog Faeries, Blackhouse (Peatbog)   

There’s a hint of long-term succession planning in the Peatbog Faeries’s seventh album. Might Archie Maclean, the nine year old piper from Edinbane on the Isle of Skye who composed the remarkably mature and readily assimilated The Dragon’s Apprentice be being lined up as a future Peatbog? Time will tell because there’s every likelihood that, as they’ve done here, the band will still be finding vigorous, attractive new contexts for tunes composed in the tradition when young Archie leaves school. Current recent recruit, Shetland fiddler Ross Couper has ensured a seamless transition because whether encased in the video game soundtrack energy of opening track, Is This Your Son?, the exotic world music feel of Tom in the Front or The Ranch’s Doors/Santana-for-the-21st century electric guitar and keyboards flourish, the essential character of fiddle, pipes and whistle tunesmithing shines through. As the track titles suggest, every tune has a story behind it and while this is a band that loves a hoolie, it’s also capable of tender, atmospheric reflection.

From The Sunday Herald, June 14, 2015.

 

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Altan, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The past, present and possibilities for the future were all discernible in Friday’s concert, Altan’s first appearance in Edinburgh in quite a few years. The past shone on a few choice songs and tunes from their extensive back catalogue, respectively sung with the sweet clarity that has long been Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s signature sound and played with the polish, professionalism and attention to relaxed but exact accompaniment of a tour-hardened unit but with the added fire and enthusiasm of a Donegal session.

Much of the material came from the group’s current album, The Widening Gyre, and therein and elsewhere, lay the good omens that their recent recruit, piano accordionist Martin Tourish sent out. Tourish is an instinctive, exciting and endearingly enthusiastic player with a knack for inspired, spontaneous embellishments that show a tantalising hint of danger. He’s also quite a composer. The final track on The Widening Gyre, The Road Home is one of his, written on the way back to Donegal from the Willie Clancy week in Miltown Malbay, and although it was played here on a different kind of reed, its potential as an uilleann pipers’ favourite was striking.

His accordion also brings several new dimensions to the Altan sound, his startling keyboard mobility enhancing the twin-fiddles attack of Ní Mhaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish, the instrument’s bass keys bolstering the bottom end and its harmonic capabilities enriching the long- established but always freshly apposite fretting, picking and strumming of guitarist Mark Kelly and bouzouki player Ciarán Curran. As a band, Altan have never lacked energy and over two ideally paced sets they showed that their appetite for reinvigorating the tradition also remains undiminished.

From The Herald, May 25, 2015.

 

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Le Vent du Nord, Têtu (Borealis)     

The title of Quebecois group and Celtic Connections favourites, Le Vent du Nord’s eighth album translates as stubborn or obstinate. To these definitions it seems reasonable to add cheerfully stoic and exultantly defiant as the quartet present songs, all sung in French, conveying tragedy, disappointment, revenge and betrayal with a celebratory air, borne on eminently danceable tunes and generally kicked along by the clip-clop time-keeping of Olivier Demers’ foot-work. The marvellous character of their voices in their trademark call and response style may hint at darker forces but aided by arrangements of fiddle, accordion, hurdy-gurdy et al, which on Confédération become gorgeously symphonic, this is uplifting music by any standard and might even contain, dare one suggest, a radio hit in Forillon, a superbly catchy number about people being driven from their homes to create the titular national park. The mood changes slightly for the bass and voices L’échafaud and the following feet and voices interlude but the jazz-styled Amant Volage re-establishes a swinging momentum.

From The Sunday Herald, May 17, 2015.

 

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Väsen, Edinburgh Folk Club

We may never know what happened between Väsen and the booking agent who inspired Kapten Kapsyl. It seems safe to venture that the Swedish trio’s relationship with the man they dubbed Captain Bottletop didn’t end harmoniously. Whether it reached such a brilliantly orchestrated, nay choreographed, coda as the tune named in the captain’s honour is another matter.

Väsen have made codas into an art form all by themselves: it’s one of the many, many pleasures to be had from listening to them. They’re not all as wayward and prolonged as Kapten Kapsyl’s. Some are deftly turned, brilliantly brief and quite tangential afterthoughts. Another did its damnedest to insinuate Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds into its otherwise very Scandinavian demeanour.

Such compositional attention to detail goes hand in hand with arrangements where viola and the Swedish keyed fiddle, the nyckelharpa dovetail so perfectly with a twelve-string guitar that can be piccolo sweet and Telecaster rockin’ within the same few bars of a polska. And the tunes are mostly polskas, each with a specific, identifiable character that grows and cavorts, be it with minute gracefulness, a slightly staggering metre or mighty celebration but always with fantastic precision.

The stylistic exceptions were minuets and waltzes, some emphasising the effortless stretch back to baroque times in Väsen’s music generally and one waltz in particular, delightfully named The Little Culture Support Waltz, illustrating the gorgeous elegance these men, none of whom are small, have at their long fingertips. A fantasia of pizzicato viola, nyckelharpa harmonics and twelve-string melodicism, this was quiet, shapely majesty in a set overflowing with magic, musicality, wit and whatever the Swedish might be for bonhomie.

From The Herald, May 6, 2015.

 

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Dreamers’ Circus, Second Movement (Go)     

The Scandinavian trio Dreamers’ Circus have been turning heads with their perfect synthesis of traditional, baroque and chamber music – they won a standing ovation as an unscheduled support act at Celtic Connections this year – and this second album will surely spread the word of their brilliance further. Between them, Ale Carr, Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and Nikolaj Busk play a small orchestra of instruments and they’re selectively assisted by a three-strong choir and a string quartet here but the essence of their music is a clarity - and often simplicity - of ideas that they develop with virtuosity, deep feeling, marvellous strength of character, and a fantastic collective ear for arrangement and texture. Their take on a Bach prelude is as joyfully musical as the opening, rootsy-and-then-some Folkrotsvalsen and while the first ten tracks might almost be viewed as an extended overture to the epic Fragments of Solbyn, where they really extend themselves, they’re also perfectly formed miniatures full of musicality, yearning, drama, and downright moreishness.

From The Sunday Herald, May 3, 2015.

 

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Jenna Reid & Kevin Mackenzie, Edinburgh Folk Club

The great duos in traditional music - Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas, to name but two – have a special understanding. It might be in a spark that one can ignite in the other or an understated accompaniment that makes a melody really sing. And there was something of both of the aforementioned partnerships in Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid’s playing here with that marvellous guitarist for all sessions, Kevin Mackenzie.

Mackenzie often underplays to let Reid’s exuberance and passionate expression of a slow air shine, at which times he is the Cahill to her Hayes, but he can also, and with apparent effortlessness, match her on the hair-pin bends of James Scott Skinner’s most devilish creations and on the hornpipe Princess Beatrice he produced some wonderful hot club-esque swinging cheek to lift an already fizzing fiddle demonstration into another exhilarating gear.

Reid’s value as a performer lies in the fact that she isn’t just playing the notes, be they many or more sparing. She knows their providence and her modestly phrased revelations that the composer of a tune was the guy who taught the guy who taught her somehow enrich what happens when bow touches string. She also brings her own personality and understanding to everything she plays, so a Cape Breton march or a Donegal reel will emerge with a marked Shetland accent and the unfettered vigour that gives her strathspeys such bounce will contrast with the sweet soulful longing she expresses on her mentor, Willie Hunter’s Leaving Lerwick Harbour and the dignified sincerity with which she delivers Niel Gow’s beautiful lament for his second wife.

From The Herald, April 24, 2015

 
 

Malinky, Far Batter Days (Malinky)       

Almost seven years have passed between Malinky’s previous album and this, their fifth, and although part of the delay was due to illness and taking a break to concentrate on individual projects, the quartet have used their time well, re-emerging as a more mature-sounding but still largely understated force in preserving and celebrating traditional song. Having three singers, each with distinctive voices, gives these big ballads and lighter items an admirable variety of tone and attack: Fiona Hunter’s great feeling for the traveller song repertoire shining clearly as it did in her superb contribution to Grit at Celtic Connections in January; Steve Byrne capturing his native Angus tales with a soft understanding burr; and Mark Dunlop projecting an endearing blend of innocence and vulnerability. The arrangements, using instruments including Hunter’s cello, Byrne’s frets, Dunlop’s flute, fourth member Mike Vass’s fiddle and the harmonium that producer Donald Shaw inherited from Ivor Cutler, are uniformly well-chosen, brisk or atmospheric where required. In sum a really satisfying return.

From The Sunday Herald, April 19, 2015.

 

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Shona Mooney: Annie Laurie, Bo’ness Hippodrome

The Fifth Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema’s final offering emphasised early film’s role in providing unashamed escapism. The 1927 vehicle for the delightful Lillian Gish and her ultra-expressive eyes, Annie Laurie is a yarn far from the reality of her audience’s lives and in terms of capturing Scottish history it probably makes Braveheart and Brigadoon seem plausible by comparison. And yet, thanks not least to Gish’s acting personality, it’s a good yarn and with fiddler Shona Mooney’s new score accompanying it, it became even better.

Having a well-known song as the film’s title and conflated with a take, of sorts, on the Massacre of Glencoe, is a gift to a soundtrack composer, and Mooney made great use of its melody, pulling it into different shapes here, reharmonising it to superbly dramatic effect there and using it as a springboard to themes and motifs of her own as she and her musicians, Amy Thatcher on accordion and piano and Alisdair Paul on guitar and whistles, shadowed the onscreen narrative with a completely authentic one of their own.

At close on two hours, almost entirely uninterrupted, it’s quite a shift as both composer and player and while certain scenes more or less dictate what’s required to be written – a pipe tune, say, or a dance measure – Mooney also had to stay primed to synchronise with door knocks, pistol shots, sword slashes and general pell-mell action while playing with great vigour and sensitivity. This was her first film soundtrack and the fact that the music became completely at one with Gish, her competing lovers and the warring clans’ actions suggests she might find herself in demand for more.

From The Herald, March 24, 2015. 

 

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