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Anni Donaldson reviews Celtic Connections’ Songs of Separation for Common Space 26 January 2016

THE sight of 10 women – some of the UK’s most creative and uniquely versatile traditional musicians – walking on stage at the Mitchell Theatre on Sunday 24 January for Songs of Separation as part of Celtic Connections had quite an impact.

The title of the evening was an idea conceived by Jenny Hill, who drew in Karine Polwart, Hannah Read, Hannah James, Mary Macmaster, Eliza Carthy, Hazel Askew, Kate Young, Rowan Rheingans and Jenn Butterworth to an innovative women’s cross border collaboration.

Fine singers and musicians all, they had the packed theatre eating out of their hands and singing from their songsheet. The fare was heavily laced with Eigg-y bread and was a tribute to that blessed isle whence they gathered in an innovative musical project in 2015 to explore the theme of separation.

Fine singers and musicians all, they had the packed theatre eating out of their hands and singing from their songsheet.

The evening, however, was far from a dolorous affair. In a clearly affectionate and sisterly endeavour, the cast of their creative nets and interpretations were wide. In their own words, Songs of Separation is about our shared experience, through songs and poems written by people who preceded us, whose words tell us much about our experience of the world today.

Their music celebrated the joy and connection between women and men, mothers and children, people and soil, land and lore, sea and sail as well as parting. Clearly enjoying themselves on what was the final night of their tour and their album launch party, they packed the evening with self-penned works, exquisite arrangements and lyricism in new and often long forgotten poems and songs which showed off the women’s artistry.

Their range and musicality offered glimpses of their muses and the breadth of their interpretation of the chosen theme. The concert was firmly anchored by the relaxed compering and joyous singing of Karine Polwarth as the concert opened with the crake and croak of the fiddle emulating that illusive bird in Echo Mocks the Corncrake, a song celebrating the bird’s stubbornness against the threat of eviction from its natural habitat.

The lush string arrangements and vocal harmonies of Poor Man’s Lamentation an English broadside ballad adapted from a poem by Uriah Smart and the powerful 10-voice a cappella choral arrangement of the Unst Boat Song, a nordic sea prayer and one of the oldest collected fragments of Shetland song given an almost hymnal treatment were mesmerising.

In a clearly affectionate and sisterly endeavour, the cast of their creative nets and interpretations were wide.

Each woman shone in her own way: Kate Young’s extraordinary vocal range seemed quite at home in a Bulgarian folk song, Jenn Butterworth’s fluid guitar playing anchored the many rich string arrangements and Jenny Hill’s mellifluous double bass spread a rich chocolate base over the evening.

Hannah James gave her accordion its head in a beautiful solo composition dedicated to fellow accordionist Tuulikki Bartosik showing off her instrument’s dynamic range and surprising delicacy with those well-known clog dancing feet making a surprise appearance as her very own rhythm section.

Hazel Askew’s crystal clear voice and melodeon lent extra poignancy to her reworking of London Lights singing the hopes of a destitute young unmarried mother for her new-born ‘blue eyed treasure’. The Salvation Army-esque arrangement gave the song a surprisingly hopeful air.

Eliza Carthy’s composition Cleaning the Stones, inspired by the death of a goldfish, offered as the comic song of the night had more existential depth than she let on. Eliza’s powerful voice offered a rich womanly tenor to the ensemble’s choral range.

Nowhere more effectively than in the powerful synthesis of Over the Border, a song which crossed the marches between England and Scotland, Lowland and Highland and emerged from its time of writing in 2015, post-independence referendum when the call of home and the achingly necessary trudge across borders for folk from the Middle East became yet again more pressing and tragic.

Kate Young’s extraordinary vocal range seemed quite at home in a Bulgarian folk song while Jenn Butterworth’s fluid guitar playing anchored the many rich string arrangements.

The delicate harmonies of Rowan Rheingans’ and Hannah Reid’s The Road less Travelled inspired by a Robert Frost poem were given a delicate backdrop by their banjo and plucked fiddle arrangement.

With regular sprinklings of fairy dust from Mary Macmaster’s harp and her beautifully expressive Gaelic songs, the evening never forgot its Hebridean conception on the Island of Eigg and the importance of its pierhead Tea Room and late night libations for the creative process.

The tribute paid by the women to the island as both inspiration and catalyst for Songs of Separation was loudly endorsed by the enthusiastic Eigg contingent in the audience – an island which has itself become a symbol of self-determination and the power of community.

While inspired by separation, the women conveyed the beauty and power of connection and left their audience with a warm and shared glow.

Click here to follow Anni Donaldson on Twitter, and click here to visit the Celtic Connections website for more information about the festival. Follow Songs of Separation on Twitter: @SSeparation

 

GRCH entrance

This review first appeared in Common Space 15 January 2016

“GIVE us a song!” Growing up in Glasgow in a large extended family of first and second generation Irish immigrants – all good singers – this was an order, not a request.

I grew to realise the importance of song to those not long removed from their homeland and others for whom, without it, home would have become a distant memory. It holds their history, how they used to live and its meaning.

Songs live in hearts and memories. They are our belongings, a precious part of the load. Peter Shepheard, Tom Spiers and Arthur Watson, the founders of the Traditional Song and Music Association of Scotland, recognised that 50 years ago and the anniversary was celebrated with great brio in The Carrying Stream, the opening concert of Celtic Connections 2016 on Thursday 14 January.

The enduring beauty and fun of traditional song was on full display following the powerful opening by the massed pipes and drums of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

The enduring beauty and fun of traditional song was on full display following the powerful opening by the massed pipes and drums of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland. The cast of performers, young and old, offered a highly appreciative and well-versed audience a powerful reminder of the importance of keeping these songs alive.

The musical director of the show, Siobhan Millar, is one of the finest traditional singers in Scotland today. Still in her 20s, Millar has become a worthy tradition bearer herself and, like every other act on the bill, expressed her debt to foremothers and forefathers in the Scots, Gaelic, travelling and Irish and American traditions.

Accompanied by the excellent house band, Millar’s version of ‘False False’ was a fine tribute to Sheila Stewart, the great singer of the travelling tradition, who died recently.

Barbara Dickson, member number two of the Dunfermline TMSA and long time supporter, returned to her folk roots with a poignant rendering of ‘I aince loved a lad’.

Irishman Tommy McCarthy sang ‘Lady Margaret’, a centuries old ballad in the traditional Irish sean-nos style. His highly ornamented, complex, almost liturgical style used the full range of his extraordinary voice and reduced the hall to a deep silence.

Adam McNaughton’s celebration of the ‘Soor milk kairt’, Misha McPherson’s Gaelic waulking song and Shona Donaldson’s tragic 17th century ballad ‘Edam O’ Gordon’ conveyed the mood and meaning of their times.

The cast of performers, young and old, offered a highly appreciative and well-versed audience a powerful reminder of the importance of keeping these songs alive.

However, although Sam Lee’s tribute to Jeannie Robertson – ‘The moon shone on my bed last night’ – was hauntingly arranged with accompanying hammer dulcimer, Lee unfortunately lost the story in his vocal gymnastics.

Traditional songs accompanied the work inside and outside the home, to express the many emotions – love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and to often mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or by emigration.

They also rose from the difficult lives and choices facing ordinary people. The political heart of the folk song was not forgotten in the witty and often pointed repartee of compere BBC Radio Scotland presenter Mark Steven, who reminded us of its importance in sustaining a nation’s sense of itself.

The evergreen Arthur Johnston spoke of the importance of song in political struggles, in giving voice to the injustices of the Highland clearances and the troubles in Ireland. His rendition of Northern Irishman Tommy Sands’ ‘Your sons and your daughters’, singing it ‘because he was tellt’ by Siobhan, was a moving tribute to those working people who ‘sowed the seeds of freedom, justice and equality’ in the minds of their children.

North East Bothy Balladeers Jim Taylor, Sandy Morrison and Joe Aiken were on cracking form with ‘The bonny lass o’ Fyvie’ and its irresistible chorus. With the excellent Malinky, the always show-stopping Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, who are fast becoming like a comfy pair of old slippers, the show was drawing to a close when Sheena Wellington reprised her performance of ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

The show ended with a grand finale performance of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom come all ye’ with barely a silent voice in the house.

Described by Steven as a ‘defining moment’ in Scotland – the power of its words seemingly lost on the royal party there present – Wellington’s soaring voice electrified an audience living a quite different Scotland from 1999.

The show ended with a grand finale performance of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom come all ye’ with barely a silent voice in the house.

The value of song is universal. The TMSA was among friends and Millar pulled off what felt like an intimate, rousing house ceilidh within a majestic packed Royal Concert Hall.

Click here to follow Anni Donaldson on Twitter, and click here to visit the Celtic Connections website for more information about the festival.

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