The now familiar 3 min countdown is like taking your seats and settling into the promised revels of the evening. Graham Rory of the 5-piece band; Gnoss (a very old word loosely meaning word of the day) had a huge smile for us as he introduced the first song of their set from the City Halls. Equipped with flute, violin, bodhran, fiddle they began with a song called ‘Laurel Cottage’, an enigmatic song with no vocals that told a story anyway. They produced a soft dancing rhythm, followed in ‘Sea Widow’ with a slower but no less beautiful melody. They had good energy and are known for lively music choosing their own version of Jimi Hendrix song ‘Voodoo Child’ with an amazing focus on making it a very traditional folk number.
The coming together of music was now in its full flow, half way down the river. With artists performing far and wide expertly enhanced by the performance of Xabier / Diaz with Anfeiras de Saltire. Xabiers music came to life in the song ‘Primeiro’ (‘First’), appropriately their first song. This was music that reached right into life with 5 or 6 backing vocals who also all had the adufe percussion instrument in their arms – the adufe is a traditional instrument of Moorish origin.
Gaelic songstress Deirdre Graham talked us in with her Gaelic tones to her song ‘Air Fair an la’ her’ and her band played to the empty Royal Concert Hall in a very relaxed way. I felt a sense of simplicity, richness, with a strident feel for the old language that sang in the fresh songs. The musicians supported her, as she owned centre stage. She gave us four songs all in Gaelic, within a great variant and suggestion of the wide world of traditional Celtic music.
The title act called ’Blazing Fiddles’, also filmed at the Royal Concert hall, began with a set of three music pieces together named ‘The Shepherd and the Goat Herd’/’Anton McKinney’/’Double Rise’. With a violin directing a jig to come, exciting the room. The six musicians playing 4 violins, keyboard, guitar gradually joined into some great traditional dancing rhythms. Music that we cannot help but be held raised up with joy.
In their 5-tune set of non-lyrical music about just being back at the Connections, using stories from Scotland in the shape of landscapes looking like noses and heralding the famous Loch Ness monster. Set 2 called ’Strone Point/Anne Lacey’s’ was a chopped-up series of pieces, faster and slower. It was the universal side of music, that helps us engage ourselves in the grandeur of the occasion, changing mid tune to stride the pace further quickening to suit its feeling.
Their song ‘Call her Mum’ was a slower piece of light fiddle and accordion then piano then guitar. Bringing a full melody, in smart dress of black and dark red. It was like a lullaby to be superseded by a great sailing piece called dramatically ‘Vladimir’s Steamboat/Young Alumnus/Tunder Jukebox’, a lively experience involving all six performers.
Their last set was called ‘Annie’s Waltz/John McDonald of Coll view/Annie Grace Henderson/Picnic in the Sky’ had them set to take flight with smiles and a little jigging. It’s slight and measured sadnesswas one of peace and warmth as again each instrument joined the tunes in the layered traditional build-up of the music. Using faster and slower paces to express themselves and play well together.
We were left with a picnic in the sky, where we have the greatest food. Not to be missed, this year’s Connections travels on.
To a backdrop of more images of Glasgow, this evening’s Celtic Connections performance began. Entitled ‘Come Away In’, the inspiration came from a Burns poem called ‘The Wren’s Nest’ in which themes of welcome and hospitality are explored, themes which are very strong in Glaswegian, indeed in Scottish, culture, including the idea of refugees being offered warmth and shelter and an open door.
The evening was filmed in Glasgow’s City Chambers with a handful of musicians, the first to perform being Karine Polwart who kicked off the proceedings with her gorgeous vocals straight from the generosity of her heart. Her song ‘Come Away In’ offered up lyrics dedicated to the Burns poem. There was even a sense of humility as she led the song being joined by the reserved folk music that the other artists joined seemingly at will.
Her second song ‘Travel These Ways’ she told us was a commission written during 2020 as part of her work for the ‘Luminate’ festival. She works all around the country and beyond with dementia and other problems writing songs at will. Her compelling lyrics and persona were enhanced with piano, guitar and some backing vocals, usually for chorus harmonies, bringing forth big issues.
That was the reason behind what Eddi Reader called her project, using the most powerful medium of music and lyrics particularly to give a voice to proceedings. Findlay Napier’s first song ‘There’s More to Building Ships’ was no less straight and powerful, not to mention wonderfully skillful vocal ups and downs. The firm issue for this man’s song was on the world-famous heightened world of ship-building in Glasgow, and its problems of pay being pennies for the men who worked there.
All of the 13 or so songs had these powerful messages and meanings. These were clearly held by all participants in the evening’s music, as they plunged into their individually written pieces of music.
The evening was so well produced to clearly be everything that it was intended to be through really great music and storytelling complementing an often sad tale of injustice towards Scottish society with artists ready to tell facts about a heinous Glaswegian history.
Siobhan Millers tale in her song ‘The King’s Shilling’ was about what had happened to men in Glasgow and beyond, she coloured it with tragedy and pain in her heart. She told us that the story goes that Scottish men were tricked into joining the army to go and fight and die in a war. The serious levels were mirrored in her second song ‘Pound a Week Rise’ about unfairness and heartbreak for coal miners who after breathing soot weren’t even paid well or fairly.
Eddi returned, Karine returned, they all returned to perform and while they shifted between, they sat around with each other if not involved then simply listening. Rab Noakes, an experiences folksong writer, also based his provocative music on his extensive travel particularly in America. His songs added a traveller’s point of view.
And Eddi Reader’s sultry and powerful voice, style and honesty as a well-known performer blew the roof off with her powerful messages in a song called ‘My Hometown’ about coming home to her own heart as a Glaswegian saying that after a need to escape from it to the moment where she finds it her hometown that she has now come to love.
This was after a performance of an inspired song she wrote called ‘Prayer to Saint Valentine’. Of unbelievable beauty that she almost shone to create.
Findlay had the last word with his deep voice and capable song writing leaving us with ideas such as daylight ghosts that walk around and all for the love of god. The artists were relaxed in putting forward these issues and problems in the world and society of Glasgow and Scotland.
Beautiful voices, leaping into the cosmos of real and traditional yet modern song writing. So well produced as to be something of great value from personal pain and societal outrage.
BEMIS presents ‘The New Scots’ in concert 16th Jan, various venues
After more footage of Glasgow, the performances from 16 January were brought to us by BEMIS, a Glasgow based organisation who promote and empower ethnic minority communities on a national level. They give voice to these communities using a mixture of music, song and storytelling.
The first act, from ‘The New Scots’ was Subrina ‘Brina’ Ward, an artist of African origin from the hills of Jamaica. Brina is renowned for her ability to uplift every audience who have had the chance to see her. Accompanied by her band (guitar, vocals, accordion), her song ‘Be Ready’ offered nothing less than strong vocals and powerful lyrics as it told of the resolution of life in readiness. Her second song, Nina Simone’s ‘Ain’t got no, I got life’ was a chance for her to offer her interpretation in her velvety tones.
Brina and all the acts were ecstatic to be involved in this year’s festival of joyous international collaborations. The third act hailed from Eastern Europe played the old and modern ‘Polka’ in a three-man band who swapped instruments including, violin, accordion keyboard so alive and celebratory. But our current circumstances were driven home. They announced that to their great distress the virus had claimed the life of their great friend and top accordion player. Their final song, ‘Doina’ was dedicated to his memory.
The joy of being involved in this year’s festival was well seen as Danny Cliff played his self-written song ‘Sunset’. With just his voice and a piano, already an endearing combination, his song reminded us of life’s more precarious moments when there is nothing to do but accept.
When Katie McGuire gratefully thanked the festival for her chance to be involved, she introduced Ceilidh music from her band, St Roch’s, who were a trio. The traditional Scottish dancing music was skilfully enacted in its swirling movements and close knit interactions.
And so, as the screen fell to Cosmic Shruti Box, the four musicians sat as a group on the floor. The performance began soulfully with the sound of Tibetan singing bowls of various sizes, enhanced by sitars and hand drums. The spiritual rhythms felt like light rainfall, warm and enthralling. There was an amazing amalgamation of cultures, Indian, African, Celtic with a portrayal of the musical ups and downs of the various societies, In the song Emma Stout’s voice blended Celtic Scots with Indian and rose to greater and greater depths as the music warmed and developed.
When you hear music like this it seems like all you are is there in the power of here and now. I sat here on my own, in my living room, with my laptop in front of me, and throughout the hour I was no less drawn to these wonderful performances and happy encounters.
There were poignant scenes of famous Glaswegian architecture, leisure facilities and craft hubs on offer in the digital introduction to the first evening of Celtic Connections 2021. We watched as a single piper strode up Buchannan Street, being joined one by one by other pipers whose number grew to about 8. They climbed the street to the Royal Concert Hall, into the entrance and into a performance. It was a moment of pure Scottish style for all involved both in front of and behind the camera.
After this splendid introduction, the Celtic Connections 21 Big Band immediately struck up a rendition of ‘Mackerel & Tatties’, an upbeat instrumental version of Michael McGoldrick’s traditional Irish song, before the festival’s Creative Director, Donald Shaw welcomed us with a message of sombre hope and of lifting of spirits for the beginning of 2021. The accompanying footage took us to venues both in the home base of Celtic Connections of Glasgow and further afield where the fires of music have not been dimmed. Indeed there was a great sense of happiness and anticipation from the musicians of just being able to get back to what they love.
The third performance by Karine Polwart was of a song by Robert Burns from a poem of his called ‘Come Away In’. In earnest Karine sang about the bard’s desires to shelter everyone and anyone from stranger to friend. The song opened up the show and the Scottish hearts to the warmth of connections.
There were performances in the main hall of the Royal Concert Hall, at the Glasgow Art Gallery, as well as other venues big and small. I noticed Eddi Reader providing backing vocals. In each performance, musicians had all kinds of instrument from violin, flute, pipes and there were often ones that though I could tell they were string for example the actual name and date of them was beyond me, very much like the music and vocals in Frenchand Gaelic.
From the Big Band of 21 members, down to ensembles of three or four, we were surrounded by unmissable variation from plucking music from the Far East joined with the traditional Celtic stream. Performers would take turns leading in vocals and solo’s on instruments as we were taken through styles and genres. Music of differing speed, topic, intention. All a celebration that covered sad tales or lively good ones to dance sing and revel to.
All in all it came to 17 performances. 17 acts that were familiar or strangely unusual. Performance 5 had the French group La Vent Du Nord who sang their own folk song in an upbeat tempo, ‘Aieu du Village. And then there was the beautiful flute-inspired ‘Farewell to Nova Scotia’ singing about Canada from far away. The Art Galley with its huge premises had Duncan Chisolm on violin playing solo but then backed by The Scottish ensemble playing a tune called ‘A Precious Place’ a fitting title that went with a beautiful spiritual song.
Then the act called Sona Jobarteh came with her wonderful multi instrumentalist music of love and hope, an African style that included the Kora instrument. The 17 acts endlessly streamed from one walk of life to another, selecting clothing to represent each ones cultures, Sona with the most colour and gold. Racy costumes with racy enlivening music. A good time for having a good time, some nice places that this time we had to use our imagination to be in. I am grateful for the wonderful imagination of all in this first session and I am very much looking forward to the next.
After much soul-searching & debate, the Mumble Team have decided that they will be launching a Fringe programme this August if the current climate of social distancing has evaporated. We will also be supplying free tickets for NHS workers as a way of saying thank-you. The Fringe just needs to happen, & with the ethos being one of Open Access, The Mumble are prepared to step up to the plate & keep the Fringe flag flying high.
THE PEOPLE’S FRINGE is a chance to get back to the roots, to 1947 at the start of it all before it became the corporate behemoth of 2019. A certain quote has been banded around the media recently from theatre director Gerard Slevin, who argued in 1961, when the event was less than 15 years old & already starting to swell in size, it would be, “much better if only ten halls were licensed”.
So, that is just what The Mumble will be curating this August; ten venues, dedicated to one of the art forms, & sponsored by Mumble Theatre, Mumble Comedy, Mumble Cirque & others. Our Mumble Words venue will step into the spheres the Book Festival. Being based in Edinburgh all year round, we are perfectly placed to make it all happen, & its kind of duty to do so, a fringe for the people, THE PEOPLE’S FRINGE.
The Coronavirus may be assaulting the body, but the spirit of the Fringe is immune, & when all gets back to normal – as it surely will -, then the world will once more be able to find cheer, inspiration, hope & solace in an Edinburgh summer festival for the arts.
Having listened to the new album I was excited about this one, tickets were purchased months in advance. The Gang of Six (there can be any number in the Gang of Six technically – Graeme has decided that on this instance there was “at least twenty”) converged on Glasgow. Having established base camp we managed inevitably to set off late which is what triggered the race.
Half in a taxi and half on foot, we were really impressed the “push the button for a taxi” gadget, finish line was deemed to be slapping the barrier front left in the SSE. We sprinted to an early lead but the taxi riders made wanker gestures at as they cruised by in luxury. We decided it would be best to split up but stick together when we got there. We arrived way before the carbon zero walking squad it was almost too easy.
It was a total roadblock so a classic bit of queue jumping was required. We even had enough time for a bar stop and established ourselves at the front left and waited for the people who love to queue to turn up. And waited. Having to guard too many pints for an hour and a half was a test in itself, security refusing to store them behind the barrier. We were there so long waiting we made really good friends with security and enjoyed an average hour of 2ManyDJ’s. Finally at the perfect moment the losers turned up just as the Brothers were coming onto the stage.
They definitely played “Hey Boy Hey Girl” and “Galvanised” near the end and lots of other really cool stuff. The lights were amazing, the company was outstanding, the lazers dazzling. Who’s sound system was it though? Too quiet, we could talk to each other down the front and a complete lack of tinnitus the next day. The spectacle was immense and perfect, it was just too quiet. They smashed the curfew by three minutes and will have to face the consequences of their actions. Truly a corporate rock and roll experience. We split up again to head back to the hotel.
Off to the old Leith Theatre we went. For those who don’t know it, it’s a fabulous old building from the 1920s, with tiered seating and a huge ballroom, which has been given a new lease of life after falling into disrepair in the 60s. Well here we are, with less than 60 days before we usher in the 20s again and the place couldn’t be livelier.
Folk have arrived for the early opening time for the Moon Party, which is a bit unusual for Edinburgers, who tend to come late and not want to go home after! What’s the fuss about? Well the Pianodrome is the world’s first amphitheatre made entirely from up-cycled pianos. It’s a 100-seater amphitheatre constructed from over 50 discarded pianos, it promised an immersive night of live music, DJ beats, projection art and glow-in-the-dark performances set within the Pianodrome that is installed in the main auditorium of the Leith Theatre.
As soon as you step foot into the circular construction you can see that everything, seats, steps, chair backs etc are all made from wood salvaged from the old pianos. It has been built as a sculptural interactive amphitheatre. The event we went down for was the ‘Moon Party’ which was the official launch party of Pianodrome’s ‘resonancy’ at the venue, which will run from 12 November – 8 December 2019. This event is jointly produced by LeithLate & Pianodrome. It is part of the LeithLate19 events programme, supported by City of Edinburgh Council and Baillie Gifford.
An event, nested in another event, joined on to another event, a musical Ménage à trois, covering jazz, world, folk, light performances by Think Circus. And the evening rounded off with DJ, Joseph Malik on the 1s and 2s. We were greeted by Martha at the box office and the welcome couldn’t have been… more welcoming! She told us that the Pianodrome was actually an interactive sculpture before the performances started at 9. So go and get stuck in, and be sure to stop by the Merch’ store, where there were some mighty fine t-shirts and some complimentary glow sticks and UV paint & sparkles. All glittered up, we grabbed some drinks from the delightfully kitch, shabby-chic bar and went to settle in. Worth noting was the attitude of all the staff, from security to bar staff to all the punters, everyone was happy, smiling and ready for a fun night.
A hush came over the auditorium/Pianodrome as the first musicians took their places. Lizabett Russo, a humble Romanian songstress and musician, supported by guitarist Graeme Stephen, who created sounds, using samplers and loops to great effect to fill the place with haunting melodies, which captivated all. I couldn’t put my finger on where exactly the music sounded from but at times it seemed middle eastern, Icelandic and even Japanese, supported by strong folk roots.
After a brief intermission the Chris Lyons Gypsy Jazz Quintet kicked off. I was particularly impressed by the trumpeter but the ensemble, who were all obviously accomplished musicians, failed to connect with the room until their energetic finale song. I was disappointed this wasn’t followed by more of the same. By now the place was really buzzing and it was a great place to connect with your fellow audience members. Everyone was really open and friendly, sharing an appreciation of the performances.
Lights dimmed for the Lunar performances by Think Circus. Juggling with light-up batons and a glow-poi, which morphed into a double act, which I have not seen before. Their creativity was a great segue into the DJ for the last couple of hours.
I can’t emphasise just how good DJ Joseph Malik was. The tunes he was playing out were eclectic, wide-ranging and covering multiple genres. He kept the musical narrative tight and full of energy. Malik had everyone up dancing, not just mindlessly moving to beats, but actually listening to the music and it felt like everyone was fully appreciating his 2-hour set. I will be digging out my dancing shoes any time I hear he is performing in the future. Really danceable and a wonderful way to bring the Moon party to a close.
One of the best new folk voices in Scotland?
The Mumble had to catch a blether
Hello John, first thing’s first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Originally from Paisley but now have set up camp in Glasgow for the last 7years.
When did you first realise you were musical?
I have always sang, I remember singing infront of girls in Nursery which means i was around 3years old so I actually dont know what came first, talking or singing
Who were your earliest influences & who inspires you today?
My Mum and Dad had great taste in music when I was growing up. Elvis was a big one with my Dad, i would watch old VHS documentaries on him from a real early age. Im sure I was found infront of the mirror in more than one occasion shakin my legs n curlin my lip. My mum was more into Roxy Music and Marc Bolan, Bolan was always quite close to Elvis style wise I thought prob my brain just knowin they were about at the same time in my head.
The Glasgow music scene is one of the most thriving in Britain, if the planet – what are its secret ingredients do you think?
Folk ask that a lot even in music programmes I watch and the answer seems as simple as it the weather hahaha all the great UK music cities have the same vibe. Its raining awww the time so you tend to sit and learn an instrument, draw a picture or roll a joint.
As a songwriter, what motivates you the most to put words to music?
I’ve always loved anyone that can make something out of nothing. Artists, Painters, Poets even Chefs and Mixologists. They are all the same, there a passion thats quite hard to get rid of. I mean I dont put myself in any notable league but the fact I have been able to write a melody and put some nice words together just makes me happy. I can imagine I’ll not always sing forever but I will always write. Its an escapism, a therapy and helps me get out anything that may or may not be on my mind at the time and escape from any 4 walls that have confined me.
You’ve got three singer-songwriters coming round for dinner – who would they be & what would you cook?
Ray Lamontagne, John Lennon and Noel Gallagher. I do enjoy cooking but my menu is limited. All 3 guys from the sticks so I’m sure theyd be happy with what was put down to them.
What do you like to do when you’re NOT being musical?
I used to love drawing, when I was very young drawing was my music, but i lost interest when I became a teenager. When I moved to Glasgow I got back into it, prob out of boredom I suppose but if Im not working or noodlin on the guitar Il just doodle instead.
You’ve recently got a new manager – can you tell us about him?
Davie Boy Smith? Aka David Blair. I was more aware of Colonel Mustard before I knew David but I played a show at the Purple Orange in Bathgate maybe 2 years ago and a lovely woman put me in touch with David via Facebook and we’ve became closer as the years have gone on. We do have an identical tattoo which is a bit strange so maybe stars are set??? Who knows, but hes a great guy and believes in what Im tryin to do and the feelings mutual.
You’ve got an album out, what’s it called, where was it recorded and how did the sessions go?
My Debut album is called “Beneath The Apple Tree” that has been out digitally since April. It is a selection of songs written by myself over the years. The oldest being written around 10years ago. It was recorded Morsecode Studios with the amazing producer Liam McCluskey at the wheel. The album was recorded in 16hrs with 2 mics in 1 take. It was a wonderful experience, being recording in Studios for 20yrs it was the first time I was confident enough to believe that just my guitar n my voice was enough.
What are your favorite tracks off the album both to listen to and to play?
Gold & Green is probably my favourite song to play on the album. The lyrics came from a track I wrote when I was 19 that was around (cough cough-teen years ago) I never loved the melody but always had the lyrics in the back drawer of my mind for a later date. Once I found the melody it just seemed to fit with a little bit adding and editing, the chorus just came straight away. I like that it has a little story of 2 kids running around with their smiles glistening in the summer breeze. Although like alot of my tracks it has a bitter sweet moment when the chorus lets the listeners know that the 2 characters may not have made it as loves young dream after all.
You’ve got a gig coming up in Glasgow soon, fancy a wee plug?
Big Time. 22nd of November I play my first Headline show in Room 2, Nelson Mandela Place, Glasgow City Centre. To coincide with the physical launch of “Beneath the Apple Tree.”
What does 2020 hold in store for John Rush?
I think myself and Davids big push this year is some festivals and having as many folk hearin the album as possible before hopefully going back into the studio end of 2020.
LET IT SNOW is heading back to Elgin
We chatted with the man behind the music
Hello Ryan, first thing’s first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
I was born in Aberdeen and brought up in Buckie, in the North East. I’m now based in London, having gone via Glasgow where I did my undergraduate degree.
How interested are you in the North East’s folk music?
It’s the one thing I miss living in London – I grew up playing in all the fiddle festivals, before joining the Strathspey Fiddlers in secondary school. Through them I found myself part of an amazing community of traditional musicians in Moray who I used to play with all the time, and whenever I go home I try to get people together for a tune. I learnt a lot from that environment, and I think it’ll always be in me and influencing my music, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.
When did you first realise you were musical?
I remember from a young age, early primary school, nagging my parents for piano lessons. It was always piano, never anything else. When I started at seven years old, I drew to it straight away, I never needed to be told to practice.
Can you tell us about your training?
I went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, originally to study traditional music but after my first year I switched over to classical piano. I loved the traditional course, but I think I felt that if I wanted to keep my options open later on, having that rigorous classical training would stand me in good stead, which was definitely the right call. I graduated in 2017 and moved to London, where I worked in theatre for a couple of years, and now I’m doing a masters degree in jazz at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
You have worked with many a top of the shop pieces of musical theatre – which are your favorites & what is it about the genre that makes you tick?
It’s hard to choose a favourite because the thing I love about working in theatre is the breadth of style it carries – for someone like me who loves variety in their work, it’s a great career as each show you work on is different. West Side Story would probably be the one that comes to mind first. It’s the show I’ve done the most (I’ll never forget playing a few shows on the International Tour with that incredible New York rhythm section), and all those conflicting styles within it really excite me. I also love The Light in the Piazza. But now that I’m involved in jazz, I‘ve come to appreciate the Great American Songbook composers more than ever – Jule Styne for me is the master. I don’t think you can find better than his scores for Funny Girl and Gypsy.
You have also worked with Pixie Lott in recent years – can you tell us about it?
I met her last year, we were both part of the RAF’s 100th Anniversary Gala at Drury Lane – I was working with the West End cast who were performing throughout the evening, and Pixie was the guest. She came into rehearsals a couple of days before the gig, and decided she wanted to perform one of her new songs at the gala with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, so the two of us went off to rehearse it and I orchestrated it for the RPO who were arriving the next morning. She must have liked something about what I did for her as we kept in touch and when I left Les Mis, she asked me to film some of her new music with her. Now I gig with her regularly, and she’s one of the loveliest people I could hope to work with.
What does Ryan Mackenzie like to do when he’s NOT being musical?
I love travelling – I’m lucky that a lot of the work I get takes me to new places, but any time I have a few days off, I try to jump on a plane somewhere. I love photography too. And reading – getting stuck into a good book is one of the only ways I can get out of my own head. I really struggle to switch off. Especially at the minute since I’m juggling lots of freelance projects, Let it Snow preparations and my masters.
This year sees the fifth anniversary of Elgin’s Let It Snow Charity Christmas Concert – which you are producing. How did you get involved?
Myself and a few friends started the event as a fundraiser for Lucy’s Fight not long after Lucy was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. She formed the charity to raise money for MND Scotland, so we thought we’d do our bit to support her while we were home for Christmas. It was originally planned as a one-off, but it got such a great response that we decided to do another one the following year, which sold out. Now it’s become a really big event in Moray – this year we have three concerts, and the tickets are disappearing pretty quickly. I’m delighted that people keep coming back to support us and give so generously to Lucy.
Who have you got lined up for us this year?
We have our big band as usual, this year being led by amazing trumpet player Joshua Elcock and made up of both local talent and some of the best young musicians in the UK. Joining them as their guests are singers Rachel Lightbody, Emilie Boyd, Fiona Milne and Jasmine Dey. We’re also working with a community choir, and have a few local primary schools coming to perform too.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the concert for somebody in the street, what would you say?
It’s a really special way to kick off the holidays – it’s incredible that these musicians come up to Moray so close to Christmas to raise money for a local charity, and the collaboration between them and our local musicians is something worth seeing. For us, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Let it Snow.
I do enjoy visiting the coastal pearl of Scotland that is St Andrews, for the city knows its culture well. I was thus in a premium state of anticipation to experience for the first time a festival there, Voices. Its artistic director, Sonia Stevenson, certainly knows what she’s doing. A loyal local lassie, being brought up in St Andrews & nurtured by its thriving & masterful music scene, by 2019 Sonia is using her national experience as a performer & events organiser – fuelled by her clear love of bringing people together – to formulate a quality program. For the 7th time in a row, she has assembl’d a venturous team of volunteers & performers to spread musical joy across the city for four very freshening days. Reinventing itself each year, Voices showcases the versatility and beauty of the human voice in an amazingly broad spectrum of genres including opera, cabaret, lieder, folk, spoken word, choral, a cappella, early music, new music and more…
To experience the festival I intended to attend two evening’s worth of events – the Friday & the Saturday – & spend the weekend in the area as a bonus. The wife & I do enjoy supra-historical Fife, & booked ourselves at an air B&B in Newport-on-Tay. The view across ever the Silvery Tay reminds her of home – the Puget Sound, north of Seattle – & being only 20 minutes from St Andrews, & even less to Dundee’s TK Maxx, Newport seem’d perfect for all our needs.
Friday the 18th of October 2019 saw wild fits of weather lash the eastern coast of Scotland. It was absolutely brutal, but Voices is not an outdoor festival, peppering instead some of the best venues in St Andrews. Parking up near the abbey, we slipped into the splendid Byres Theatre for our first event, a recital by soprano, Carolyn Sampson, accompanied with flourishing panache by Joseph Middleton. Carolyn has an internationally acclaimed voice, performing roles for the English National Opera, the operas of Lille, Paris & Montpellier; & also appearing as a soloist across America with symphony orchestras from Boston to San Francisco. Middleton himself is a highly esteemed member of the living pantheon, being the first accompanist to be the recipient of the Young Artist Award at the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards.
They are quite a team these two, with an invigorated history of combined performances & recordings behind them, including the fantastic Fleurs of 2015. It is from this sense of togetherness that a remarkable set of songs have sprung back to life in their hands, lungs & vestments. It was quite an honour to be there, as this was the very public first performance ever of SONGS OF HEAVEN & EARTH. The next day, Saturaday 19th, they would be doing it all again at the Leeds leider.
A recital such as this is window into the drawing rooms of the Romantic era. Long before the electrification & mass reproduction of music, all of it had to be done live. Haydn, appreciating the talented amateur, creative his simple but effectively entertaining Italianate Arianna a Naxos. This provided the opening three numbers of the night, all conjured with precision & liveliness by Sampson & Middleton. Next up were four songs from Schoenberg’s Vier Lieder, followed by two from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
Switching to French after the interval, we enjoyed a miniature procession through the sapphic Les Chanson de Bilitis, written by the Belgian poet, Pierre-Felix Louis. A series of 143 poems with strong lesbian themes, some were put to music by Debussy & Koechin, & were presented to us with continued performative excellence. Finally we were given Four Last Songs, by Richard Strauss, followed by another Strauss piece, Morgen, as an encore.
As audience members, my wife & I adored Carolyn’s stoic & quasi-theatrical performance of these soliloquyised serenades, hardly taking our eyes off her apart from when Middleton ended each piece with a downturned floating hand, as if bouncing some invisible energy-sphere off the keys. All in all, witnessing the higher cerebrality of such trilinugal musical mastery was a scintillating start to our Voices experience, especially when I heard the vaulting etherality of Debussy’s Le Tombeau des Naides for the first time.
After the performance, we had half-an-hour out in the tempest. We had to get ourselves to the Hotel du Vin at the other end of St Andrews, for a very different but equally magnaminous musical performance. Robyn Stapleton is a lassie of the purest Celtic tradition; raven-headed, lilly-voiced, & a consummate teller of tales. Former BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, she was accompanied by Mike Vass, a tender guitarist who never dominated, always allowing Stapleton’s singing to willow upon his silken waters.
Her talent lies in a consummate memory for word, phrase & pitch, while the overall song selection was stunning, keeping well within the theme of the festival, which is to shine a spotlight on some of history’s most important women, such as Sundays opera Mary Queen of Scots, by Donizetti. Among the beautifully sung numbers we heard the broken token classic, Pretty Fair Maiden, Stapleton’s personal favorite, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Violet Jacob’s excuisite poem ‘Halloween‘ (music by Jim Reid) & a Burnsian ‘bothy ballad’ – I cant recall the writer or name – that got the crowd singing along for the first time.
The performance was over only too soon, despite most of the crowd now getting quite delightedly on board with the choruses. We were like a boiled sweet that had finally sucked down into the honey-sweet centre. By the end I really understood the remit of the festival – I had heard two very special & different singers, but if you add the unique & idiosyncratic playing styles of Middleton & Vass then perhaps I had hear four Voices.
It had been a wonderful initiation into what Sonia Stevenson is trying to achive with her festival, & as I stepped out into the skin-stripping Viking blast, I was warm enough inside to get to the safety of the car heater without too much discomfort. On the drive back to Newport, my wife & I were breaking into – quite randomly, but in perfect synchonicity – diddly-pom choruses based upon Robyn’s own brilliant selection – the pure pudding proof of a top night out!
Weatherwise, the next morning was a much less sanguine affair; clear skied & breezy, the quintessence of the east coast Autumn. While I followed the Rugby World Cup, my wife hit Dundee & its celebrated TK Maxx. ,Before we both knew it, daylight was rapidly running out of room in the sky, so we drove the 20 minutes back to St Andrews & began the rather serious hunt for a good restaurant. It was a great excuse to meander about the trident streets of St Andrews, & we eventually settl’d on an incredibly tasty Chinese called New Dynasty.
So to our second & final evening at Voices. It began with a tour of the dreamlike Luxumralis installations, guided by Sonia Stevenson herself, still effervescently sprightly considering she is mid-term with her second child. By her side was the equally charming Amanda Macleod, in her second year of assisting Sona, while the guest speaker was Dutch astrophysicist Anne-Marie Weijmans. The tour began in the Zest Cafe, where for 20 minutes or so we were regaled with a scientific introduction to the light-show we were about to see.
Luxmaralis are currently taking a light & music spectacular into cathedrals & churches across the land. It was borderline beatific to experience a papal score & fabulous 3D images swirling into every physical & metaphysical crevice of St Andrews Holy Trinity. We British may be a much more agnostic bunch these days, but if anyone would have seen such a ‘miraculous’ show even 150 years ago, they would have downed tools & immediately joined some kind of religious house.
Spiralling through time on a 20 minute loop throughout Voices, of its installation in the festival, Luxmaralis mastermind Peter Walker told the Mumble; We have been working for around 12 months with the festival director, looking at the subject of Space and the cosmos and considering how this works not only as an artwork but also bringing in a concert element with a collaborative choir which, although we have worked with choirs before, is in this case directly linked to the artwork. The Space link comes from the Lunar landing anniversary, although its not the only reason – being in a church reanimating the space and the architecture and creating a different visual experience for the festival was also key (read the full Interview).
Towards the end of the sequence, into the church stepped 4 members of festival’s ensemble in residnce, the Gesualdo Six. They were singing some utterly divine Latin homily, reinforcing once more the exploration of the capabilities of the Human Voice that is the eclectic & entertaining theme of Voices. This sonic wonder was rapidly followed by the arrival of spacecraft projected onto the Holy Trinity masonry & its illuminated glass, the piece’s proper pinnacle & one which all othe best of performance art needs to possess.
After our 20 minutes, a portion of the tour group followed Amanda out into the St Andrews night, for the relatively short walk to a wee gem of a church, All Saints, & its own portion of the Luxmaralis experience. This instigated a less epic, but equally as intense severing of the consciousness from the self, & once more I drifted into quasi-spiritual thought.
“We’re gonna be late,” whispered my wife, snapping me into full action for our final show of our Voices experience, back where we started at the Byres. This was to be David McAlmont, famous from his collaboration with Suede’s Bernard Butler, which turned out be a startlingly pleasurable show in which he sang some of the best songs by Billie Holiday. The ultimate ariel blueswoman, she was an enigmatic, hard-partying, bisexual, junkie black jazz singer who the shoved the Jim Crow laws where the pale-visag’d sun doesn’t shine, via the magic of her singing. Her ability to conjure a thrilling atmosphere was replicated with some success by McAlmont & his immaculate band. Their set consisted of 14 songs, inbetween which McAlmont & his pianist, Alex Webb, told the fascinating story of Billie Holiday’s rise & fall drawn directly from Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.
Through songs such as ‘I Cover the Waterfront‘ & ‘Fine & Mellow,’ McAlmont gave a subtle but refined performance, allowing me to enjoy the watching of each member of the band as they strutted their pristeen stuff – Sophie Aloway’s drumming was especially entrancing. I thoroughly loved the stage-space, which helped my mind to focus on each member of the ensemble, tho’ my wife disagreed & said she’d have preferred a more distill’d version in a jazz bar or something. I reminded her that the show was meant to be emulating Billie Holiday’s famous second, sold-out comeback show at the rather large Carnegie Hall in 1956.
We both agreed to both agree & disagree, & were soon enough happily singing some of the splendid songs we’d just heard on our drive back to Newport, just like we did the previous evening. For two nights in a row the Voices conjured by Sonia Stevenson, her team & the superb performers were flying flowing through our brain channels like naiads, & we look forward already to what ‘soup of the day‘ selection of Voices will be pirouetting about St Andrews next Autumn.