Celtic Connections: New collaborations and old songs

Lau's set showed the band remains on stunning form. Picture: Contributed
Lau's set showed the band remains on stunning form. Picture: Contributed
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Fresh collaborations are breathing new life into traditional songs, writes Sue Wilson

A fundamental element of much traditional music is its intimate relationship to landscape and place, and in this year’s New Voices series of newly-commissioned premières at Celtic Connections, first Hamish Napier and now Ewan Robertson (*****) – singer/guitarist with the band Breabach – have built on that fertile heritage with wonderful artistry and movingly powerful results.

The inspiration behind Robertson’s multimedia creation, Transitions, unveiled in the Strathclyde Suite, was the Celtman extreme triathlon in Wester Ross, a truly fearsome endurance test – swimming an Atlantic-fed loch, cycling 200km along vertiginously winding roads, and running a marathon over two Munros – which Robertson has completed twice.

Titled with the term for switchovers between triathlon stages, Transitions’ marvellously vivid musical reimagining of the experience, and meditation upon it, interwove songs, instrumental sequences and snippets of narrative, thrillingly complemented by Somhairle MacDonald’s filmic backdrop, which spliced aerial vistas of Celtman’s magnificent locations with action footage from the event. Robertson’s evocative ensemble writing for an 11-piece line-up, fronted by bagpipes and three fiddles, underpinned the race’s varying physical rhythms, while his songs’ deceptively simple lyrics resonated eloquently at multiple levels.

Along at the Mitchell Theatre that evening, a cross-generational array of leading female musicians from Scotland and England performed the live Scottish première of Songs of Separation (****), comprising newly-written or freshly arranged material distilled from a week’s songwriting retreat last summer on Eigg. The theme of separation was interpreted broadly, with a bold new version of the traditional Echo Mocks the Corncrake, led by Karine Polwart and incorporating Native American-style choral chants, alluding to the disjunction between humanity and nature, via its eponymous endangered bird, while Victorian broadside A Poor Man’s Lamentation on Equality and Love, featuring singer/accordionist Hannah James, highlighted economic divisions.

US-domiciled Scot Hannah Read brought first-hand poignancy to the exile’s plaint It Was A’ for Our Rightfu’ King, and Kate Young’s deliciously eerie setting of a translated Danish poem, The Sea King, mourned our modern dissociation from folklore’s supernatural realm. Also including Eliza Carthy, Mary Macmaster, Jenn Butterworth, Jenny Hill and James’s Lady Maisery bandmates Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew, the line-up matched its vocal wealth with an array of accompanying instrumentation – and the performers’ evident shared delight in the project.

The following night, at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, exceptional singing again united with resistance to needless barriers when Eddi Reader and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (*****) reprised Alba: Songs for Scotland, a collaboration first staged for the SNJO’s 20th anniversary last year. Linked via the multifaceted subject of love, the programme – dominated by Burns songs, it being his birthday – succeeded superbly in its stated aim of transcending or dissolving musical divisions, between tradition and modernity, or among folk, pop, jazz and orchestral sounds. Clearly revelling in the additional freedom and spirit of adventure furnished by the band’s inventive but sympathetic accompaniment, Reader has seldom if ever been in such sumptuous voice.

Also at the Concert Hall, Thursday’s Scottish/English double bill of Lau with The Unthanks (****), saw the latter performing first, in full ten-piece formation, continuing their evolution away from traditional sounds towards arrangements influenced more by contemporary classical music. Especially in material from their latest album, Mount the Air, Rachel and Becky Unthank’s singing, once the band’s haunting focal point, was frequently deployed as merely another colour or texture in the mix, along with strings, brass and piano. While the results were certainly lavish, what singing there was, often heavily swathed in echo or reverb, largely lacked the magically delicate yet livewire interplay of rawness and sweetness that was once a signature trait.

There was certainly no shortage of textural raw edges and sweeping dynamic variety in Lau’s set, nor of sweetness and subtlety, for while their sound, too, at times attained an almost orchestral grandeur – despite emerging from a three-man line-up – such passages were skilfully counterposed by moments of stripped-down instrumental purity, or contemplative quietude, in music that elsewhere rivalled the most creative contemporary rock.

Another key strength underscored here was Lau’s insistence on adding fresh twists and flourishes even to old material, while their reprise of the brilliantly inventive, 15-minute title track from last year’s album The Bell That Never Rang, with accompanying string quartet, reaffirmed that for ensemble virtuosity, anchored by melodic heart, there’s no-one to touch them.