Elephant Sessions: Exotic gigs and £25k beer bursary keep Highland folk-fusioneers ale and hearty

Enthusiastic receptions at festivals in New South Wales and North Carolina, an eponymous beer and a dauner doon Sixth Avenue… the past year or so has been an eventful one for Highland folk-fusioneers Elephant Sessions, not least the past few weeks.

Elephant Sessions PIC: Sean Purser

The quintet release their third album, What Makes You, today with a concert tonight at Edinburgh’s Liquid Room and a tour down south, returning for more Scottish gigs later this month. When I spoke to their mandolinist, Alasdair Taylor, he and his fellow Elephant men were about to embark on the ferry for the Shetland Folk Festival.

They had originally planned to head for Shetland the day before but postponed it while they shook off jet lag from an April which started with them playing at the post-parade party at Tartan Week, New York’s annual effusion of tartanalia, then appearing at Bluesfest in New South Wales, to return via Merlefest in North Carolina. It’s an indication of Elephant Sessions’ increasingly broad fan base that both festivals cater for genres way beyond “Celtic” – Merlefest being a celebration of country, bluegrass and other Americana, while Bluesfest headliners ranged from Iggy Pop to Norah Jones.

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It’s a natural, genre-transgressing progression for a band which brought its hyper-charged folk-fusion to Glastonbury a couple of years back. “We went to Merlefest wondering whether we’d fit in,” says Taylor, “but we did two gigs on the same day. One was all people sitting on camp chairs; we were a bit nervous about how we’d go down, but very quickly people were dancing and clapping. They were incredibly appreciative. The late-night gig ended up a very dancy, jump-around affair. We were really chuffed, because it could have gone either way.”

On the new album, a track called Tyagarah is named after the farm site of the Australian Bluesfest, which they’ve played twice. “Our first visit was a big turning point for the band, travelling to just about as far away as we can get from where we’re from.”

The Antipodean event, along with Glastonbury and their first headlining gig at Celtic Connections, when they sold out the Old Fruitmarket, have been three major landmarks, although Tartan Week was also memorable – “Walking down Sixth Avenue with 30,000 people shouting and waving flags. What an experience!”

Further triumphs have included scooping Album of the Year at December 2017’s Scots Trad Awards and Live Band of the Year in last December’s awards, while they also won the first Belhaven Bursary, a £25,000 prize aimed at assisting up-and-coming artists. The East Lothian brewers further honoured the band by producing an Elephant Session pale ale (4.2 per cent ABV), with an eye on the festival market.

Elephant Sessions – the band, that is – emerged from a concatenation of early Fèis Rois tuition, University of the Highlands and Islands courses and Newcastle University, where Taylor, now 26, met bassist Seth Tinsley from Hexham and the emergent group enlisted Highlanders fiddler Euan Smillie, whom the mandolinist had known from early music lessons, guitarist Mark Bruce and drummer Greg Barry.

The title of What Makes You is a nod to the band’s journey over the past two years – “It’s the music that makes us,” says Taylor. Riff-driven and electronically augmented, its bright fiddle and mandolin front line darts through shifting drone harmonies, marimba-like outbursts and Barry’s propulsive drumming, although there’s a contrast in the beefy rasp of the Matfen Brass Section in the stately Riverview Pt. 1.

Taylor sees the album as a natural progression from their first and second recordings: “We’ve pushed the sound further in the way we wanted it to go, dropping in electronics, more layering.”

Having made their reputation very much as a stage band, they’ve tried to replicate a “live” feel. As Taylor puts it: “You don’t want someone to see you live then buy the album and think, ‘Oh, it’s not as good.’” - Jim Gilchrist

For full tour details, see www.elephantsessions.com