Monday 2 December 2013


Live Review

Town Hall, Birmingham

There are worse ways to mark St Andrew's Day than sitting in the wonderfully ornate surroundings of the Town Hall, Birmingham to enjoy the sound of Scottish band Capercaillie as part of their 30th anniversary tour.

Capercaillie celebrating 30 years
It was worth fighting through the endless sea of bodies which had descended on the Second City to enjoy the German Christmas Market, Birmingham Eye and skating rink to listen to the eight piece band which is Capercaillie, not least for the gorgeous sound of singer Karen Matheson.
For 30 years they have been bringing the haunting sound of The Highlands; of Celtic legend and their own blend of folk music and interpretation to appreciative audiences all over the world.
They are perfect examples of how music transcends all boundaries because most of the lyrics were either in Scottish or Irish Gaelic but that didn't make an iota of difference to the audience. It didn't matter that they couldn't understand the lyrics only that the music spoke to them.
Matheson moved in and out of the concert sitting out tunes such as the Jura Wedding Reels, Jura being an isle which is part of the Inner Hebrides, while the rest of the band showed their skill with their respective instruments.
The tune opened with the Manus Lunny on bouzouki and was quickly filled out by Michael McGoldrick on flute, for this occasion, and the accordion played wonderfully by Donald Shaw.
This was followed by Fainne An Dochais, which means Ring of Hope and started off with a gentle opening thanks to McGoldrick and Shaw, this time on the harmonium.
This gave it an almost church-like quality but the sound was soon filled out by Lunny and Charlie McKerron on the fiddle before Matheson came back in with her haunting voice singing in that gorgeous Gaelic tongue which sounded as clear as a mountain stream running through the highlands.
Their anniversary album
Shaw then introduced the Quimper Waltz which is a dance and music which derives from Brittany, this then gave way to the Hare's Paw and moved on to Rose Cottage. Shaw opened on the accordion with a hint of Frenchness but not quite enough to stop it just sounding European. Again the rest of the band waited their turn to fill in the tapestry of sound.
As you would expect after three decades together each member of the band can almost second guess the others and their music and sound blended beautifully building each time to a rich waterfall of sound but without drowning out each individual musician.
This said Rose Cottage brought in a fantastic duet with the two macs McKerron and McGoldrick as they picked up the pace and sent the Celtic sound washing over the audience.
Matheson then came back into the proceedings for the title track of their anniversary album At The Heart Of It All which was penned by Shaw and is about the hope and future of Scotland. It was one of the few Matheson sang in English and was a straightforward ballad that was quite commercial sounding but did give McGoldrick a chance to show his expertise on the uillean pipes.
The band went out into the interval on a high with Alasdair Mhic Cholla Ghasda which was a real toe tapper with Matheson's voice jumping around the hall like a march hare in full flight and beautifully harmonised with the male voices before unleashing the full sound which conjured up images of an army heading to war and was sent out to the whole audience clapping along.
They opened the second half with Ailein Duinn which is the story of two warriors who met in battle. It opened with Matheson's wonderfully melodic voice soaring around the hall and providing a fantastic interlude for the flute.
Abu Chuibhl (Spinning Wheel) flowed along with Matheson's up and down lyrics which sounded almost like a market cry and was then filled out by the rest of the band. Matheson then again took a back seat.
McKerron got his chance to shine with some stunning fiddle playing which was as close to classical folk as you will ever get and at times had the feel of Ralph Vaughan Williams'  The Lark Ascending.
Then before the audience had finished clapping his efforts McKerron was straight into the next reel with the band backing him up every inch of the way.
Karen Matheson
Matheson then came out with a great story about Prince Phillip and Aly Bain which you need to hear from her lips rather than read it written down.
The band moved onto a funkier sound with Nil Si I Ngra which means She's Not In Love amid the funk beat was Matheson's voice, haunting like the sound of Clannad.
Matheson then did a wonderful version of a Dick Gaughan song, Both Sides The Tweed, about tolerance and understanding her voice rose and fell like the Scottish mountains and were coloured beautifully by the male harmonies.
The band then again showed their prowess on the range of instruments with a set of marches including Alasdair Sutherland The Sound of Sleat which opened expertly with the flute, then as before like dancers in a ballroom the other member musicians Ewen Vernall on double bass, David Robertson and Che Beresford on drums and percussion came swirling in to build the sound up to the climax.
Capercaillie has been playing and making records for three decades and not just as a band but they have found time to do solo projects too and the reason they have lasted so long is the quality of their playing, clarity of their music and the organic way their sound can transport you to a different place - long may it continue.

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