RNCM 3rd October 2009
On a wet and windy evening that would not have been out of place in the Scottish Isles, Julie Fowlis began proceedings with an evocative walking song that conjured up her native northern Uist and one almost felt as though one had been transposed to the highlands. Scots Gaelic may seem an unlikely vehicle in the current increased interest in folk music, yet in Fowlis and band’s accomplished hands, the audience were treated to a masterclass in the musical genre. Throughout the evening it is the purity of Fowlis’ vocals that shine through, irrespective of whether the accompaniment was sparse or full on. Julie Fowlis came to prominence two years ago with a critically acclaimed debut album, ‘Cuilidh’ that won an award at the annual BBC Folk presentations and the songs on that album along with her brand new recording, ‘Uam’ (literally ‘From me’ and referring to a book Fowlis received of north Uist poems and songs) formed the basis of this evening’s repertoire. However, key to her art is an exploration of the common roots of Irish and Scots music and this is something that folk musicians as distinguished as Andy Irvine and Bert Jansch have long believed in. This interest in common roots was perfectly illustrated on another collaborative album from 2008 ‘Duet’ featuring Irish guitarist Eamonn Dorley who is an integral member of Fowlis’ current band. A technique that the singer has perfected is that of the wordless vocal, seemingly inspired by the scat vocals of jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, yet here sounding thoroughly grounded in a traditional folk setting. The audience is transfixed by the vocal gymnastics even if the overwhelming majority understand little or nothing of the Gaelic lyrics. Fowlis alternates between vocal pieces and instrumental numbers where she joins the rest of the band with an assortment of penny whistles and flutes (she can even plays the pipes as heard on her albums) that are ideally suited to the music. She is very ably assisted by a talented bunch of musicians. These include the long-time musical partner and guitarist Eamonn Dorley who frequently intervenes between songs with witty banter (doubling up also on fiddle) and Glaswegian Martin O’Neill who, in addition to being a fine bodhran player (and one who can play in a variety of contexts – witness his performances at the Manchester Jazz Festival a few years back with Neil Yates) can also accompany Fowlis on piano or play solo. Two other members, a fine fiddler and guitar player, add layered texture to the ensemble sound and in general the interplay between musicians was simply excellent. A definite highlight was a Gaelic version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’ with gorgeous accompaniment on fiddle. In this pared down version, it is the bare essence of the song that emerges and Fowlis even returns to the English original part way through. Julie Fowlis’ rendition of the song was actually the first folk song download to feature on the national playlist charts.
The singer seems very much as ease in a live setting and her frequent musical collaborations as witnessed on the recent Transatlantic seessions for the BBC have done her no harm at all, rubbing shoulders with the likes of James Taylor and Martha Wainwright, and even Mancunian Irish multi-instrumentalist Michael McGoldrick. Often the inspiration for writing traditional folk songs was an everyday happening such as one devoted to having a new pair of shoes, or the plight of women on the island. To the general amused bemusement of the audience, Fowlis announced that they would be singing along to some Gaelic lyrics (the singer is also a presenter on radio Alba – the Gelic-speaking digital channel with Gaelic now officially recognised as a national language) and her perseverence succeeding in teaching them a few lines of the language via a classic love song during which the audience joined in on the chorus. A new song translated from Breton was an indication of Fowlis’ desire to explore new territory within the Celtic musical domain and this piece was in fact first performed at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. On the purely instrumental pieces the band cooked up a folk equivalent of a jam session which generated some intensity and had the audience clapping in unison. Tumultuous applause resulted in a greatly appreciated encore and a fitting song about cows! This proved to be a mournful lament with O’Neill supporting Fowlis on piano. The evening’s entertainment ended on a definite high with an uptempo instrumental jig with Fowlis on penny whistle and a joyous rapport between band and audience. Tim Stenhouse