Folk, jazz, etc: Fire, brimstone and floods to bring a Gaelic inheritance back home

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are bringing their soulful amalgam of American roots music to venues across Scotland
Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are bringing their soulful amalgam of American roots music to venues across Scotland
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CONFRONTED with a phrase – and an album title – like “the holy coming of the storm”, particularly from a song entitled On God’s Rocky Shore, one might be forgiven for thinking in terms of blood, fire and old-time religion, especially given the occasional hymn-like quality of the album’s music.

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are like that: the Seattle-based duo, currently on their first UK tour, are respectively 26 and 30 years old, yet, as I remarked when reviewing their fine album, The Holy Coming of the Storm, at the beginning of the year, they sound as if they are inhabited by the souls of venerable Appalachian mountain men.

Yet, as Morrison explains, the impending storm is meteorological rather than biblical, and of the kind that hits his usually arid New Mexico homeland.

“A lot of people assume it’s a religious song, and I suppose I made it sound that way,” he says, “but I grew up in the desert and it’s all about the flash-flooding we used to get and how you know a storm is coming when the rivers start running.”

Morrison and West’s music – lean vocal harmonies entwining over a whirr of clawhammer banjo and ringing guitar strings – is a soulful amalgam of American roots music.

According to Morrison, they’re drifting somewhere in “a Bermuda triangle where folk, bluegrass and old-time converge. We never really do any traditional old-time or standard bluegrass. I write 95 per cent of our material.”

Audiences in Scotland, who get the chance to hear them during the eight-venue Scottish leg of their tour, starting at Crofthead Hall in Neilston, Renfrewshire, on 19 November, might beg to disagree. The Holy Coming of the Storm, after all, does feature two or three traditional tunes and songs, and while Morrison certainly writes the bulk of their material, it sounds like music of rugged pedigree.

Despite the biblical-sounding lyricism that informs his writing, Morrison didn’t grow up steeped in gospel hall choruses, although he does read extensively and write poetry.

He says: “You can make things sound older just by using certain phrasing, so part of that comes from being attuned to literature, also the subject matter is broad but still bound by the kind of material you write about if you want to sound traditional in any way.”

But a way with songsmithing is in Morrison’s genes. It’s not just that Irish first name – derived from Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Celtic legend. Morrison’s great-grandfather was Murdo Morrison, a writer of songs and poetry from the Isle of Lewis who emigrated to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, but some of whose songs are still sung in Gaelic on Lewis.

“I have a book of his, but it’s all in Gaelic and I haven’t been able to find any translations,” he says.

On this, his first visit to Scotland, therefore, he’ll be looking out for a translator but also hoping to shed further light on his Hebridean bardic lineage – so much so, in fact, that a film crew from BBC Alba will be shadowing the duo to make a documentary around the trip.

The only other member of his family to have visited the old country is an aunt, who placed an advert in the Stornoway Gazette some months ago, trying to re-establish family connections. “It got a lot of responses,” says Morrison.

So the duo’s penultimate Scottish gig, in Stornoway’s An Lanntair Arts Centre on 26 November, is expected to turn into quite a “homecoming” for this latest expat Morrison bard, storms notwithstanding.

• Morrison and West play Crofthead Hall, Neilston, on 19 November; The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, on 20 November; then tour throughout Scotland (including a house concert in Edinburgh on 23 November, contact for more details) finishing at the Tin Hut, Gartly, Aberdeenshire on 29 November. For further information, see