Equally by dint of tremendous talent and assiduous hard graft, the young Scottish quintet Breabach have steadily ascended the UK and international folk rankings since emerging as Danny Kyle Open Stage winners at Celtic Connections 2005, but Friday’s headline festival performance – before a 1,000-plus capacity crowd – resoundingly affirmed their status among Celtic music’s most accomplished and exciting trad-based acts.
City Halls, Glasgow
Alice Marra & The Gaels Blue Orchestra *****
St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow
Together with Folk Band of the Year, Breabach’s double triumph at December’s Scots Trad Music Awards saw them scoop Album of the Year, for their fifth release Astar, whose live incarnation here reunited the band with some of its guest musicians: Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva, Quebec’s Pierre-Luc Dupuis on harmonica and foot-percussion, and violinist Greg Lawson, the album’s producer.
Even for one who’s had Astar on heavy rotation since it came out last March, these expanded and elaborated arrangements were a freshly revelatory delight, highlighting Breabach’s ever-evolving facility for ringing new and beauteous changes on traditional material and instrumentation.
Even in those numbers sans guests, their own line-up of Highland pipes, flutes, whistles, fiddle, guitar, bouzouki and double bass, plus Ewan Robertson and Megan Henderson’s Scots and Gaelic lead vocals, interleaved myriad, mercurial layers of timbre and texture, melody and harmony, groove and counter-rhythm. As polished as it was passionate, matching fiery intensity with exquisite finesse, this was a magnificent set.
Antrim fellow five-piece Beoga – featured guests on Ed Sheeran’s imminent third album – likewise opened the batting with exhilarating panache and excellent musicianship, putting their own distinctive twists on traditional formats via a frontline centred on twin button accordions, alongside fiddle, bodhran, guitar, and ragtime/barrelhouse-accented piano, garlanded with Niamh Dunne’s husky yet luminous singing.
From the wondrously effulgent Aurora, a lilting self-penned jig inspired by the Northern Lights, to the wild, gleeful abandon of Dolan’s 6am, their playing packed both potency and punch, while the song arrangements, including a fresh-minted rendering of Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford and Eamon O’Leary’s rueful, wishful country-folk ballad Like A Dime, were a model of eloquent understatement.
The following night, another packed house was chock-full of love, as Hazey Janes vocalist Alice Marra, daughter of the late great Dundee bard Michael, launched her first solo album Chain Up the Swings, a collection of her father’s songs both well-loved – the title track; Mother Glasgow; Schenectady Calling – and all but unknown, the latter gleaned from Marra Sr’s extensive collection of home-demo cassettes.
Backed by a ten-piece ensemble that teamed some of his closest musical cohorts with younger acolytes, as well as Alice’s guitarist brother Chris – who contributed several superb solos – she simultaneously channelled her dad’s inimitable spirit and made the material entirely her own, on a hugely moving yet marvellously joyous occasion, rendered yet more celebratory by the previous day’s digital release of Michael’s entire recorded catalogue.
As she sang the whole album, amid opulent arrangements including piano, keyboards, harp, accordion, violin, viola, trombone and radiant backing harmonies, his daughter’s voice proved a luscious, exultant instrument, by turns sensuous and forthright, at once lifting the heart and sending shivers down the spine.