AN EVENING TO TREASURE
Ruaridh Pringle 2007
The evening of the third of March saw Carinish Hall packed to capacity. More than a hundred a fifty people sat patiently awaiting a much anticipated event: a concert by North Uist singer and musician Julie Fowlis, the second in a tour publicising the launch of her new CD, ‘Cuilidh’.
Accompanying her on the tour was another hot young star in the world of folk and traditional music, Shetland fiddling friend Jenna Reid.
The first half of the evening belonged to Jenna, backed by guitarist Kevin MacKenzie, double bassist Duncan Lyall, and on keyboard and fiddle by her sister Bethany.
Immersed in music from an early age, and a member of Shetland band Filska along with Bethany, Jenna also plays with Julie Fowlis in acclaimed sextet Dòchas, and has toured with Deaf Shepherd and Fiddler’s Bid. Her debut album ‘With Silver & All’ won her the title of Best Newcomer at the Scottish Traditional Music Awards last year.
Rising gracefully above some confusion over her identity in the introduction, Jenna was quickly into her stride, leaving jaws slack with some virtuosically frothy Shetland-style fiddling.
It was quickly apparent she is as good a composer as she is a player, with her own tunes losing nothing to the traditional ones. And it wasn’t just fast tunes which impressed: when required she could make her fiddle weep like a baby, as in her heart-wrenching rendition of North East fiddling legend J. Scott Skinner’s slow air Hector the Hero.
Amongst other notches on his belt, Kevin MacKenzie has toured with Fiddler's Bid and such luminaries as Finlay MacDonald, Simon Thoumire and John McCusker, winning the Scottish Arts council’s prestigious Creative Scotland Award in 2001.
His grounding in jazz was evident in some dazzlingly varied yet never less than sympathetic chord progressions. The mark of a gifted accompanist, he made it all look deceptively simple.
Then came some real pyrotechnics, with some scorching reels penned by Jenna providing bassist Duncan Lyall, who has also accompanied the likes of Fred Morrison, Brolum and Croft Number 5, a chance to strut his stuff. ‘I shouldn’t really be out of breath,’ Jenna told us afterwards, ‘but I haven’t really learned to play and breathe at the same time.’ Her audience could sympathise.
Next came some hornpipes. Played with an unlikely combination of sureness and blistering rapidity, with phenomenal jazz accompaniment from Kevin, they segued into a positively incandescent rendition of J. Scott Skinner’s fiddle test-piece ‘The Hurricane’, which left much of the audience seeming (though ultimately the urge was resisted) primed to erupt, whooping from their seats.
A slow air followed, accompanied with a lovely light touch by Bethany on the keyboard. Hearing them play together, it was somehow obvious they were sisters. I found myself drifting off somewhere else, and expressions all around the hall suggested I was in good company.
This was nothing ordinary. We were witnessing something approaching mastery not only of an instrument, but of expression. Jenna Reid has the whole range: she can coax her fiddle, gently tease it, provoke it to spit and fizz - or simply wring its neck. Each mood seemed to touch something elemental.
The band finished with a teasing slide from the open-string resonances of an old Shetland tune into more pyrotechnics, Jenna and Bethany (both on fiddle now) ping-ponging counter-melodies back and forth like playful musical reflections of each other, the entire band seeming to meld into one voice.
They got the rapturous applause they richly deserved.
In the wake of what was going to be a remarkably hard act to follow, after a lengthy break and an introductory song by clear-voiced young Gaelic singer James Stewart, Julie Fowlis came on to a warm welcome, flanked by a highly impressive backing lineup.
Alongside bouzouki and fiddle-playing partner Éamon Doorley, who plays with multi-award winning Irish band Danú, was fiddler Duncan Chisolm, whose CV includes folk-rock pioneers Wolfstone, Blazing Fiddles and instrumental supergroup Session A9.
Completing the band on guitar, Black Isle multi-instrumentalist Anna Massie’s many accolades include BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2003, and Trad Music’s Best Instrumentalist Award in 2005.
Julie Fowlis herself was brought up at Langass in North Uist, although most of her family are from Hogha Gearraidh. Many of the songs she now sings to a worldwide audience were those she was brought up with, although she says it was not until her twenties that she realised their cultural importance.
‘I’m fortunate to come from somewhere people are so willing to pass on songs,’ she was to tell me after the concert. ‘These songs have been kept alive for generations, so a lot of credit [is due] to the singers who have kept them alive.’
I mention I’d heard she was more nervous about the Carinish Hall concert than the ‘big’ one in Glasgow.
‘Yes! Well, they were both nerve-racking for different reasons. Here, it was all the people who were so kind and generous giving songs in the first place, and I didn’t want to let them down.’
She needn’t have worried.
They got straight down to business with the first three tracks from the new album. It took time to adjust to the new, more laid-back pace of the Gaelic songs, but by the third number, the sweet An t-Aparan Goirid ‘s an t-Aparan Ùr: Òran do Sheasaidh Bhaile Raghnaill, I was hooked.
Nothing here was unnecessarily flashy. The rhythms were driving yet light and subtly nuanced, the whole band working together to provide a huge, unified, richly textured, foot-tapping, soul-filling sound which complemented Julie’s voice to perfection.
And what a voice: deeply sweet, expressive, full, natural and distinctive.
A set of two Irish tunes from the album followed by two Scottish ones, all led by Julie on the whistle, allowed Anna Massie to demonstrate her impressive picking ability on the guitar.
After a spirited puirt-à-beul set came a dryly humorous song involving sea-sickness which Julie learned from Lachie Morrison from Grimsay: Turas san Lochmor, in which Duncan Chisolm’s harmonised seamlessly with Julie’s voice, to powerful effect.
Next, an eerie song ‘about the heavy burden of love.’ Unfortunately its title escaped me as by this stage I had left my body, and was floating somewhere above Carinish Hall. Despite the complexity of the tune, shifting constantly between minor, major and modal scales, Julie sang unaccompanied.
It was here that the star quality which won her the BBC Radio 2’s Horizon Award in 2006, and has caused commentators to speak of her in the same breath as mainstream English language artists such as Bjork and Kate Bush, shone brightest.
Eyes closed, seeming lost in the world of the song, she held the entire room spellbound, until the applause began and she made her trademark gesture of hands steepled coyly under her chin. Her on-stage presence is huge: it’s only off it that you realise how small and slight she is.
Further songs included a rendition of Finlay Morrison’s Oran nan Raiders, about the broken promises made to men sent to fight in WW1, with some fine lone accompaniment by Éamon. Julie’s official part of the evening finished with some energetic and enthusiastically received puist-à-beul from her first album, Mar a tha mo Chridhe.
As an encore, both bands united for Òganaich Uir a Rinn M’Fhàgail (another song from Julie’s first album) and a set of well known tunes which provided an interesting meld of Western Isles, Shetland, Irish and Highland musical styles.
While the tour has now finished, Julie and Éamon will be on the road until May, promoting. After that they have decided to take a month’s well-earned break. In June, Julie has festivals and gigs planned with Dòchas, and this summer will be involved with virtuoso fiddler John McCusker’s Celtic Connections and Cambridge Folk Festival-commissioned “Under One Sky” project.
Impressed by Julie’s knack of assembling impressive musical line-ups for both gigs and CDs, I asked how they transpired. ‘Not easily! We’re just fortunate to be friends with loads of amazing musicians. You make friends at festivals who you bump into regularly, and friendships that last a long time.’
When will she be back in Uist?
‘I don’t know. Soon, I hope!’
As we all stepped, breathing deeply, from the concert into the clear air of a chill night, the moon was just entering a total eclipse.
Life doesn’t get much better than this.