Music review: Karen Matheson, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Picture: Wikimedia
Picture: Wikimedia
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AS Capercaillie’s vocal jewel in the crown, Karen Matheson celebrated the band’s 30th anniversary in 2013 – now it’s 20 years since her own first solo album, The Dreaming Sea.

Karen Matheson | Rating: **** | Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Over that time, and the course of three more albums, she has built gradually and painstakingly on her already-secure standing among our foremost Gaelic singers, expanding her interpretative range such that her set-list here – even though her latest release, 2015’s Urram, is actually her first all-Gaelic recording – took in songs by Si Khan, Sandy Denny, Robert Burns and long-time collaborator, Love and Money frontman James Grant. (Though with Urram featuring Seckou Keita on kora and sarod player Soumik Datta, it’s hardly pure-drop trad.)

Underlining her solo oeuvre’s continued evolution, this was one of the first live outings for Matheson’s rejigged backing band, with long-time linchpins Grant, on guitars and dobro, and accordionist/pianist husband Donald Shaw, newly joined by electric/acoustic guitarist Sorren MacLean, and Innes White on guitar and mandolin.

The latter pair represented a generation of Highland and island musicians who weren’t even born when Capercaillie started out, but continue to reap their groundbreaking legacy.

Aptly, the passing down of culture between generations is Urram’s central theme, and the fresh instrumentation subtly but vibrantly complemented Matheson’s mesmerising delivery, in Gaelic ballads and puirt-à-beul as well as Scots and English material. Her every syllable, nuance and quiver of vibrato seemed touched with individual care, as she tempered utmost control and polish with thrilling emotional intensity.