Saturday, 30 January 2016

Two acts at the peak of their powers - Celtic Connections 5

Unthanks and Lau - ***** - GRCH
If anyone thinks that folk music is some immutable, traditional monolith, they need to see one of these two bands. Come to think of it, they need to see these two bands anyway.
Rachel (l) and Becky Unthank. photo Sarah Mason
Both the Unthanks and Lau take folk as a basis, and then add layers of invention.
The Unthanks pare songs back to basics - many of them, like Thursday night’s Testament of Patience Kershaw, or Died for Love, traditional songs – but they then add value, with a string quartet, trumpet or their own clog dancing rhythms! Incidentally, isn’t it interesting how many folk tunes work so well with brass accompaniment?
They are also wont to take material from other genres – on Thursday the honour of their pure delivery went to the King Crimson track – Starless. A peerless performance was topped off by the title track of the current album – Mount the Air.
Lau, on the other hand, while they also base their music on folk roots, use them as a jumping off
Lau (l-r Aidan O'Rourke, Kris Drever and Martin Green)
point for their compositions that build multiple layers of sound with electronic and traditional instruments, upon that base. They also used a string quartet, and in a nice touch the backing vocals to the first two tracks were provided by Rachel and Becky Unthank!
While Torsa harked back to earlier albums, most tracks came from their soon-to-be-released album The Bell that Never Rang. First Homecoming, and Ghosts showed what consummate musicians Lau are, while the title track formed the final hurrah to a hugely impressive concert. And the lighting was a joy in itself!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Pulling down the walls – or how to arrange an ensemble concert – Celtic Connections 4

Songs of Separation - ***** - Mitchell Theatre
In a festival that has made a feature of ensemble concerts, where a number of artists come together around a theme or event, ten women from Scotland and England showed last night how it should be done!
Jenny Hill
Brought together on the Isle of Eigg by bassist, Jenny Hill, this impressive array of talent showed the importance of both ensuring the variety of distinct contributions were given their own space, but working together to deliver a concert greater than the sum of its parts.
From Karine Polwart’s opener Echo mocks the Corncrake, we were treated to a wide-ranging
Karine Polwart
discourse on Separation – from each other, from the land, from family, from life itself. Sparked by the consideration of 2014’s referendum, the project didn’t come together until after that event, and this produced much more wide-ranging consideration, covering Gaelic, Norn, Bulgarian and music hall songs, as well as newly written work.
As Eliza Carthy pointed out – as they met, the unfolding tragedy of refugees gave a very different and human story of separation. That is reflected in the ensemble piece Over  the Border which powerfully combines, the Scots post-Flodden song,  ‘Floo’ers of the Forest’, the English First World War song ‘Flowers of Knaresboro’ Forest’  and the Scots  pipe tune, ‘Blue Bonnets O’er the Border’ in a call to get ‘the gates, and their borders all wede away’.
Rowan Rheingans
The concert constantly referred to how the project had reinforced connections between the musicians – both directly like Rowan Rheingans and Hannah Read’s arrangement of Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  - and indirectly, such as watching all the women singing Gaelic choruses.
Indeed the musicians – who included Hannah James, Hazel Askew, Jenn Butterworth, Kate Young, and Mary McMaster as well as those above – molded together so well in support of each other, that it’s impossible to believe they haven’t been playing together all their lives! Pull down those walls again, please!
The concert was part of a tour to showcase the album created from the women’s time on Eigg. It is released on the 29 January – check the NavigatorRecords website for more info.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Acts announced for Mary Barbour Gala Concert

This release was featured in the Evening Times on the 19 January. It updates earlier news with some of the artists who have signed up to play in the GalaConcert. Get your tickets NOW!!
A galaxy of stars will play at the Gala Concert to raise money for a statue to Govan Rent Strike leader, Mary Barbour, it was announced today. The concert, which is scheduled for 21 February in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, will feature a number of great performers for a night of entertainment, song and music. 
Compereing the show is comedian and presenter, Susan Morrison, and the guest
Arthur Johnstone
list will include folk legends, Sheena Wellington, and Arthur Johnstone, rising singer and musician Siobhan Miller, Scottish legends The Whistlebinkies, Gaelic singing star, Maeve Mackinnon, harmonica supremo, Fraser Speirs, and folk-rock recording artists, The Wakes.

A local Govan-based community choir – the Govan Allsorts, led by musician Lesley Robertson - have also been called in to bring Mary’s community centre stage! Further special guests are anticipated.
Susan Morrison
Compere, Susan Morrison said “It has long been the case that the role of women activists in the struggle for decent conditions has been overlooked. Its great that we are helping an important move to redress that, and that so many wonderful artists are keen to help.”
Maria Fyfe, Chair of the Remember Mary Barbour Association said. “This concert has taken off and looks like being a superb celebration of Mary’s life and work. Isn’t this a great way to raise much-needed funds, display the huge support for this project and have a great night out?”
Mary Barbour led the successful rent strike of 1915 and went on to play a leading role in the labour movement as a Glasgow Councillor and energetic social reformer. Following an extensive campaign to have her contribution recognised, five sculptors were shortlisted to create a statue of her to be placed in her community of Govan. So far each has created a maquette of a proposed statue . These were unveiled in November and are being toured across Glasgow from then until February. See them on the Facebook page here.
Details of the Gala Concert are as follows
Remember Mary Barbour – Gala Concert , Sunday 21 February, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 7.30pm, Tickets: £25, from the Glasgow Concert Halls box office.  0141 353 8000. For further information  - www. and on Facebook

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Our nation deserves better songs - Celtic Connections 3

Scotia Nova – Songs for a better nation ***  GRCH,  Strathclyde Suite
The problem with projects like this, is that you end up with a bunch of compositions, some of which won’t be as good as others.  That problem is magnified when you base it on such a crucial event as Scotland’s referendum, where strong opinions abound and the capacity for
And this is what has happened with Scotia Nova – a parallel musical project to the similarly-titled selection of poetry published last year  - some of the songs are very good, some are frankly, poor.
The diamonds are often those that address real issues – rather than vague appeals to abstract notions or continued harking back to the constitution. Brian McNeill – self proclaimed socialist – was probably the high point with his piece The War of the Crofter on the fight of the Assynt crofters to buy their own crofts. Scott Murray’s song about Edinburgh’s homeless – Duke Street to Jericho, taken straight from their own words, and Mari Campbell and Dan Francis’ O Man, Jock Tamson, a lament for the impoverished, also both shone out.
I’m afraid Charlie Milne’s Scotland’s Future didn’t really deal with our future in any real way, and Simon Kempston’s We must unite, for all its laudable aims, failed to grasp – well anything really.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Soul of the Estuary - Celtic Connections 2

--- and this is the second - a tour-de-force by Chris Wood
Chris Wood - ***** - Glasgow Art Club
Chris Wood - stepping up to the mark
It is a common misconception that the tradition of ‘folk music’ that addresses contemporary social issues doesn’t come from the South East of England, but must derive from the gritty urban north. Chris Wood blew that myth apart in this concert, and staked a strong claim to be- not just ‘an Estuary Soul’ singer, but ‘The Soul of the Estuary”.
Appearing on his own for a nearly two-hour concert he held a packed audience (nb to the organisers – he could fill a bigger venue!) entranced. Partly, it is the sharpness of the songwriting. His songs can take you straight into contemporary working class life - None the Wiser; So Much to Defend, minor league football – It’s only a Friendly, or they can pass stinging comment on politics as in Spitfire.
But if that were not enough, he operates on other levels. Hollow Point, telling the story of the killing of Charles de Menezes is guaranteed to freeze the blood, and his (admittedly risky) re – writing of the tune to Jerusalem has the result of bringing out Blake’s original call to arms.
Chris Wood’s triumph lies in his ability to both recognise unsung talent – his selection of the underrated and sadly-missed Ronnie Lane’s The Poacher to round-off the first half was a piece of magic – and his ability to write beautiful, simple lyrics that draw complex comments on contemporary society with humour and a sharp eye.
It can be difficult for an English folky to come up to Scotland and get an audience. If this concert is to go by, Chris Wood has broken through that barrier. Let’s hope he’ll be back soon.

The Carrying Stream - Celtic Connections 1

This is the first of a series of reviews of Celtic Connections concerts. I'm doing a couple of summary reviews for the Morning Star (and indeed did a preview piece here.) but I thought some of these concerts deserve a full review to themselves. Here is the first, of the opening concert
The 50th anniversary of an association formed to promote and preserve Scottish Traditional music sounds a bit 'worthy', conjuring up images of bearded men in Aran jumpers! But the difference between the image and the reality of traditional music in Scotland is soon exposed. Celtic Connections' opening concert for 2016 was directed by young singer Siobhan Miller - Radio 2 Young
Siobhan Miller
folk singer of the year a few years back, and twice winner of the Scots Singer of The Year award at the Scottish Trad music Awards. And the TMSA is at least as concerned with nurturing new talent as
preserving old. That is immediately obvious from the impressive opening from he National Youth Pipe Band, backed up by the amplified guitars of the house band!
The concert also varies between standards from the Scottish traditional music scene, like Shepheard, Speirs and Watson, and Adam MacNaughon and more recent innovators like Kris Drever, sparky Gaelic singer Mischa Macpherson and - youngest of the lot! - the Ceilidh Trail Band, just back from a tour 'to see how professional musicians can survive' as MC Mark Stevens put it. Any illusion that only Scots from the Highlands are part of the 'carrying stream' was also put to rest with slots from US singer Rayna Gellart and - even further out - Londoner Sam Lee!
Sheena Wellington
Stalwarts of the Scottish folk scene there were in plenty - Arthur Johnstone and Brian Miller, Sheena Wellington (reprising her Scottish Parliament-opening A Man's a Man), Barbara Dickson, Malinky and surprise (and welcome) guests, Aly Bain and Phil Cunninghame, but the real strength of the TMSA is its willingness to absorb and protect traditional acts while nurturing and developing new talent. It is that which enabled Siobhan Miller to get away with bringing Barbara Dickson on for only one song. It is that which led the packed stalls of the Royal Concert Hall to welcome every act with warmth and affection, and it is that which meant the packed stage could sign off with Freedom Come All Ye and The Parting Glass without a false start.