“I’ve always wanted to play this hall,” joked accordionist and Scottish folk institution Phil Cunningham, gazing in wonder around the Queen’s Hall. His tongue was in his cheek, of course; Cunningham is a veteran of this venue’s long-standing and very high-quality folk music programme, and as our host for the evening John McCusker pointed out, most of those involved in this ensemble gig to kick off the Queen’s Hall’s 40th anniversary celebrations have played this space more than any other.
Southside of the Tracks: 40 Years of Traditional Music at the Queen’s Hall, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh ****
Still, according to Cunningham, the occasion did reveal one genuine first. “I’ve never played a gig where I’ve been the ‘faither’,” he said, referring to the fact that for the first time he was the oldest among the gathered players. Preparing for the true 40th anniversary of the venue in July, McCusker and Cunningham were joined by a house band which included Michael McGoldrick, Ian Carr and Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott.
There were also a number of special vocal guests, and it became apparent as the show progressed (for two and a half hours, with interval) that McCusker had specifically chosen each with a view to representing the breadth of folk and folk-influenced styles which have prevailed in the mainstream Scottish roots scene during the Queen’s Hall’s life. Cunningham himself – a representative of the purely traditional to Hogmanay television viewers – joined in as a backing player, yet when his own turn on lead came, it became resonantly apparent why he is held in such esteem; the tone, fluidity and emotional appeal of his accordion playing mesmerises.
Idlewild singer Roddy Woomble was introduced by McCusker (the pair once recorded an album alongside Lau’s Kris Drever) as “the first cool rock star I saw in the NME confessing his love for Scottish traditional music,” and the singer’s songs are just the right mix of plaintive and urgent to belong in either camp. With the band, he performed My Secret is My Silence from his 2006 debut solo album and Idlewild’s own You Held the World in Your Arms, a song perfectly adapted to this setting.
Also falling neatly between the stools of rustic pop and keenly accessible roots influences was Carrbridge’s Rachel Sermanni, her voice rich and mature beyond her years on Banks Are Broken and Lay My Heart, the latter song written in the north of Canada, she told us, after she had played a a concert and glimpsed the Northern Lights. Irish singer Heidi Talbot’s If You Stay, meanwhile, offered a softer and more reflective tone.
There were more Irish influences from Dubliner Daoiri Farrell, whose voice is raw and masculine, and Scots Gaelic song from South Uist’s Kathleen MacInnes, whose pitch and key changes are both evocative and gloriously otherworldly. Abbott also took a turn at the mic, and his songs were the purest pop, a genre this venue also does well with, including the Magnetic Fields’ The Book of Love and his own band’s resonantly singalong-worthy Isn’t This World Enough?
It was a good preview of the year ahead at the Queen’s Hall, and if an air of chumminess might have been detected as the 12-strong ensemble encored with a Last Waltz-style version of Lead Belly’s folk standard Goodnight Irene, well, what better a bunch of friends to pay tribute to this venue? - David Pollock