Isla Ratcliff Trio

Glen Tavern, Dunfermline

Fresh from my recent jaunt to PJ Molloys with Editor Damo, reviewing Mickey 9’s, it felt good to be back out in my home town to sample more of the surprisingly varied cultural delights which Dunfermline has to offer. Last review, beer & sweat soaked moshing. Tonight? Backroom Bar Folk Club action, catching The Isla Ratcliffe Trio, having just missed them in Ullapool last week. I wandered into the Glen Tavern to find the performers playing their instruments in such a spritely fashion, that I initially panicked, worrying that I’d missed the beginning of the set. As it turned out,they were actually warming up, and this it turns out is the degree of verve with which they were compelled to stroke, pluck, sing and tinkle the ivories throughout the evening.

The Glen Tavern plays host to ‘Dunfermline Folk Club’, & a fitting setting it is too. The cosy, wood panelled interior & warm hubbub of chatter fixed me with a Proustian rush, back to ceilidhs of my childhood in Portree & Dunoon, up through more recent sessions watching my mum lead sessions at the sadly departed Uisghe Beathe in Glasgow. A nostalgic pint of McEwans 80/ in hand, I nestled down at a table of the Clubs regulars as the warm up finished & the trio retreated behind a curtain concealed store room in this, the Tavern’s Lounge bar. It’s a glamorous life touring ‘Trad’.

The Folk Club had its own singers to present first however, and Isabel Watson, ‘Club Singer’ by moniker only, regaled the crowd with a lovely soprano rendition of ‘Ma Bonnie Lassie’O’. No invitation was required for audience participation, as she was joined on each courses by sonorous baritones at the tables around me, and by the final chorus every punter in the room including myself, despite being introduced to the melody for the first time that evening, came together in multiple counter-melodies, emphasising the shared sense of community, and spirit in the room. A veritable ‘mini-Mod’. With this atmosphere, combined with the warm spring sunshine still cocking a snook through the windows, it would have taken an exceptional cynic to remain with un-warmed cockles by the time our MC for the evening, the delightfully droll Michael, invited the performers to come out from behind the curtain onto “The Main Stage of the GT Arena.”*

They opened with an instrumental set of 4 tunes, beginning with delicate, precise, fiddle playing soon accompanied by the Cello, pizzicato plucked, & slapped, in perfect staccato accompaniment to Isla, who shifted into tones as slick & luxuriant as silk in perfect contrast. Iona on keyboard joined, Ellen on Cello switched to bow, as the melody switched into a Jacobean foot-tapper. They are supremely tight, whilst also managing to throw in balanced individual flourishes, like a folk version of ‘Cream’, and by the second set of the evening audience & performers alike were as enraptured by Sirens, hypnotically jigging away together in syncopated synchronicity.

The second section opened with a role reversal of cello & fiddle, with Isla providing the percussive pizzicato, allowing the cellist Ellen to display the full breadth of her virtuosity for the first time. I had been delighted to read that Iona is a huge fan of the seminal Maryn Bennett album ‘Grit’, and Isla’s sharp, percussive, stabs of the bow were accompanied by long, sumptuous strokes of the cello strings which evoked the same emotions I experience every time I listen to the opening moments of the epic ‘Liberation’. “Dear Reader, my pen fell, my throat thickened, and my mouth involuntarily dropped open to the width of a finger”. The evening continued along this vein, all the players taking a turn in each set to shine, and flex their virtuosity, each section bookended by genial, light bantering much befitting of the ‘GT Arena’ vibe.

The composition of each of the instrumental pieces is exceptional ,& a real talent for evoking emotion remained a constant throughout the night. ‘Memories of Cape Breton’ is the minimalist title which accompanies the trio as they played exquisitely matched, subtle, counter melodies over 2 layers, to Iona’s soaring and genuinely affecting fiddle. This faded out, and we were left with a haunting cello coda which could have been plucked straight from the pages of a composition by Dr Joby Talbot for ‘A Short Album About Love’.

There were some covers, and ‘King of Birds’ allowed Ellen to further demonstrate her flair as a truly unique performer, curious and apposite squeals of ‘false harmonics’ comparable in their allegorical expressiveness to an avian ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. The Trad sections are enlivened by delightfully lively keyboard playing, with Iona throwing minor notes in at all the right moments to adroitly emulate the role of accordion. The first half closed with ‘Young Jamie Foyers’. In other hands this can be a trite & anodyne dirge. Instead, our trio leave the crowd heading for the bar with tears in their eyes, as the tune serves to impress once again their talents at composition, harmonies, and a startling ability to wring emotion out of every note.

I used the break to tidy up my notes, order a fresh pint of 80/, put my pad away and settle down to simply enjoy the rest of my evening with the warm crowd, ’70 but still laddish’ MC Michael, and wonderfully talented performers. If the trio are playing in your town any time soon I urge you to take advantage of this raw, affecting, panacea, sure to cure all ills & defrost the most cynical of hearts. Oh, & if you ever find yourself in Dunfermline on a Wednesday night be sure to get yourself down to the ‘GT Arena’ at 8pm. MC Michaels banter is worth the entry fee alone**.

Ewan Law

*’Glen Tavern’ Arena
**(Ewan, I’ve warned you about taking bribes, Ed.)

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