Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Suzanne Vega, City Halls, 1/2/14

Posted in Gig review by raymondsoltysek on February 2, 2014
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Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega has been around for yonks, it seems.  There have been times when she’s appeared on my radar with a single or two of real beauty, but generally I’ve found her intensely complex narratives too demanding; hell, my usual preference is for music sung by people from Cape Verde, Portugal, Uzbekistan or half a dozen other places where they don’t speak English, so having to follow a story seems an awful lot of hard work for me.

However, I’m with my pal Jill Brown, a fine upcoming singer-songwriter herself, so I’m absolutely happy to trust her judgment that this will be something I’ll enjoy.  And I do.  Very much.

It works for three reasons.  Vega’s songs are shy and introspective, yet she herself is effortlessly charming,  sharing stories of her first Liverpudlian love, showing off the coat she bought at a thrift shop earlier in the day  and bantering with the audience about gigging in Tenerife.  She is easy in herself, sexy and assured and relaxed from the moment she comes on stage and pops on her top hat for Marlene on the Wall. 

The second reason it works is that voice of hers.  It isn’t a huge voice by any means; it’s intimate and understated, but tonally rich and always bang on tuneful.  Whether she’s doing soft and gentle (‘Small Blue Thing‘ is, really, a  goosebump gorgeous standout single song performance) or rocking it on the seductive ‘I Never Wear White’ (‘I never wear white / white is for virgins / children in summer… My colour is black…), she’s always absolutely convincing and engaging.

Lastly, it works because of her guitarist, Gerry Leonard.  It’s just her and her guitar and Leonard switching between acoustic and electric.  His electric guitar work is fabulous.  He’s worked with just about everyone, and the ambiance he creates by looping provides a perfect backdrop for Vega’s ethereal quality.  He also hits those strings cleaner and crisper than many I’ve heard during some beautiful solos; it’s just the sort of sound I love.

The hits come thick and fast to remind us just how recognisable her music is  – Tom’s Diner (a sexy, sweaty, hypnotic delivery here),  Left of Centre, Luka , Caramel – along with tracks from her new album, the tarot-inspired ‘Tales from the Realms of the Queen of Pentangles’, a concept which allows her to give her story-telling penchant free rein on the likes of ‘The Fool’s Complaint’ or ‘Jacob and the Angel’.  All in all, it’s a fine gig, and I’d certainly see her again.

We only catch a couple of songs from support act Samantha Crain from Oklahoma; what we do hear is lovely.  Worth a download at least.  Check her out.

Puking on happiness? The Raghu Dixit Project, Oran Mor, 24/1/14

Posted in Gig review, World music by raymondsoltysek on January 25, 2014
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Raghu Dixit

“There’s happy,” says Raghu Dixit.  “Then happier.  Then happiest.  Drunk on happy.  Puking on happy.  We don’t do sad songs.”

And he’s right.  I first saw The Raghu Dixit Project at WOMAD in 2012 (the now famous proposal set!) and grinned from ear to ear for hours afterwards, so I wasn’t going to miss them up close here in Glasgow, and I find myself suffering from the same facial deformity again. I can’t remember as much sheer good will at a gig before, and it’s great; they are certainly easily in my top ten live bands.

Partly, that’s because Dixit won’t shut up.  He’s a natural storyteller, comedian and all round charming gossipy gasbag.  He interacts with the audience constantly and never once loses that beaming smile of his. And the songs are happy: he has a way of turning 500 year old obscure philosophical poems from Bangalore into a crazy dance-fest, and he has a beautiful voice, rich with that Indian sensuousness.  He has the audience singing along to ‘Lokada Kaalaji‘ (haven’t a clue what I’m singing, but I’m up for a go…) and, of course, the totally infectious ‘I’m in Mumbai (Waiting for a Miracle)’, which gets the biggest cheer of the night.  The title track from his new album (housed in a cool tin!),’ Jag Changa’, is hip-swinging too.

Yaadon Ki Kyari” is a beautiful paean from his five-year-old self to his adoring parents (he tells lovely stories about growing up).  Softer numbers like ‘Sajana’ and ‘No-one will ever love you like I do’ slow the pace only momentarily and pretty soon we’re all pogoing to ‘Mysore Se Ayi‘, dedicated to the beautiful girls of the city of palaces.

I wish I had a setlist so I could link to all the individual songs for you.  The new album is lovely, but it’s very different from this performance, suffering from the big production values of the complete orchestra and over-dubbing; they are a much, much more exciting, visceral proposition live.  If you can, see them.  And, for goodness’ sake, smile.

Swoon? I surely did; Mayra Andrade, GRCH, 21/1/14

Posted in Gig review, World music by raymondsoltysek on January 22, 2014
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Mayra Andrade

So – long time no blog, and I suppose seeing Mayra Andrade again is the best reason to get back into it. She’s at Celtic Connections to support Spanish singer Buika – more of that later – and she’s promoting her new album, ‘Lovely Difficult’. She has a new band and a new sound – occasionally, she sounds as if she’s going in the direction of the soft jazz of Nora Jones or Melody Gardot.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, except Andrade is so blooming wonderful, Nora Jones and Melody Gardot should be moving in her direction.

She also has a new band, a more recognisable combo of electric guitar, bass, drums and keyboards.  I suspect they’re all still settling in; they sound great, but it kind of lacks the inventiveness and the ease she established with her previous band, led by Zé Luís do Nascimento.  I’m sure it’s a matter of time, and they’ll fit like favourite slippers soon.

“Lovely Difficult” is in many ways a big departure.  Sure, there are tracks that maintain that luscious Latin beat that permeated her previous albums – “Ilha de Santiago” is a great little calypso -  but there’s that tendency to the slicker jazz that is epitomised by “We Used to Call It Love”, her first track in English (apart for a cover of “Michelle” on the Studio 105 live album).  I’m not sure I like it all that much, to be honest, but it gets a great delivery here for three reasons.  First, she gives herself space to improvise, something she always does wonderfully.  Secondly, she’s nervous about singing it for the first time in front of an English-speaking audience and completely blanks the words, and, embarrassed and blushing, she has to get the road manager to fetch the lyrics, which endears  her to the audience; “Don’t tell my mum,” she pleads with us all. Lastly, she shyly asks us at the end if we could understand the story of the song – a lover leaving for another – and says there are times in your life when it’s perhaps better to forget what has happened and move on; “So this is why I forget the words’, she says, with a sweep of her arm, and everyone wonders who would be so stupid as to dump her, for heaven’s sake.

She throws in a few oldies – ‘Tunuca’ and ‘Dimokransa’ hit the spot – and dedicates  ” Meu Farol” (“My Beacon”) to her mother. She manages to get a typically uptight GRCH audience singing along to the chorus of “Rosa” and grunting a simian chant on the typically Cape Verdean  “Téra Lonji”, and squeezes a standing ovation from them  at the end of the set.

As always, she’s a life affirming experience, but it’s not the perfection of her gigs at Ronnie Scott’s or the Casino de Paris.  Even so, 8/10 of Mayra Andrade is as good as a lottery win.   Swoon?  I did, I tell you.  I surely did.

Main act Buika is a Spanish singer of African parents.  She has a wonderful voice and an investment in her songs that has her hands fluttering across her breast with emotion.  She comes from a flamenco and Moorish coplas tradition with distinct sub-Saharan aesthetics in there too.  I have to say, it’s just a little overwrought for me, a sense I’ve always had that distinguishes coplas and flamenco from fado. She hints at a life philosophy that is embedded in hardship and pain and improvises startlingly, clearly riffing off of the emotion she feels.  It’s admirable and heartfelt; however, it doesn’t speak so much to me, and, as my sister is very unwell, we bail early.  We’re sitting at the front, and Buika gives is a huge smile and a lovely goodbye, for which we are very grateful; our apologies…

Little Feat, O2 ABC, 3/2/13

Posted in Americana, Gig review by raymondsoltysek on February 4, 2013
Little Feat site

Little Feat

Well this is a first.  My pal Ian suggests we go along to see one of his all time favourite bands, and I discover that the support is John Fullbright.  I’ve seen acts twice in the same year before, but never twice in the same weekend.  It’s a short support set tonight, but “Gawd Above” benefits from the increased volume the ABC can offer, and he rocks it.

Little Feat have never really been on my radar.  One of those 70′s US bands that defined the mid-west sound for the likes of the  Allman Brothers, Crosby, Still and Nash and The Eagles generation, I was always aware of them but didn’t listen to them so didn’t become a fan.  However, Ian’s recommendations are always fine by me: I still remember the first time we met, in a student common room at Glasgow University where we were both studying English.  As boys do, we got talking about music.  “What’s your favourite band? he asked.  Sheepish, I said, “Barclay James Harvest” thinking I would be instantly damned for being the most uncool student on campus.  Instead, he hooted with delight.  “Mine too!” he cried.  “Well, after the Quo.”  He got me in to them too; their farewell to the Apollo was a momentous event in my musical history.

I haven’t listened to music like this for nigh on 30 years.  All of the ingredients of the finest Americana are there; fast cars, weed, alcohol and oodles of women pepper their songs, very few of which I dimly recognise, like their classic “Dixie Chicken“.  Musically, they’re as tight as a drum.  Only one original member – Bill Payne of keyboards – remains, but that’s enough to ensure they’re definitely not the Sugababes.  Fred Tackett – the owner of the finest head of greybeard hair on the planet – and Paul Barrere are fine guitarists and front men, their solos feeding off each other, and Kenny Gradney is a superb bassist.  There’s elements of rag, honky-tonk, blues, bluegrass all in there, but mainly it’s head down, full steam ahead boogie.  If some of the epics slip occasionally into self-indulgence, that can be forgiven; longevity of this quality deserves a bit of reverence.

Fine, fun stuff.

John Fullbright / Otis Gibbs, Glasgow Art Club, 2/2/13

Posted in Americana, Gig review by raymondsoltysek on February 3, 2013
link to Fullbright site

John Fullbright

A bit of good old boy Americana from Celtic Connections. Oklahoman John Fullbright, at the tender age of 24, is a terrific new talent.

He has a huge range of tones and styles at his fingertips, from classic maudlin country (never my favourite) to down and dirty blues, with touches of Jackson Browne and Randy Newman along the way. He’s a fine guitarist and piano player (he expresses delight at the beauty of the Art Club’s grand in the corner), and blows mean harmonica too. The big selling point, though, is his voice: I’ve always preferred the female voice, but there’s something exceptional about his, especially when he leaves the grit behind and sings so plaintively, as on “Me Wanting You”.

He has some big, big songs in his repertoire too, such as “Jericho”, “Satan and St Paul” or “Gawd Above“. These are sit up and take notice numbers. In an industry dominated by auto-tuned, overproduced banal mediocrity, you wonder if there is any space for a singer of his type; thankfully, the country music business in the US should ensure he’ll grow and have the success he deserves – and he deserves to be huge.

He is supporting Otis Gibbs, who is honest enough to admit that in a few years, the roles will be reversed. Gibbs is perhaps more one-dimensional than Fullbright, but that’s no bad thing. He’s a real train track troubadour, unsigned by any label; he peddles his stories across the globe, mistaken for a homeless person in Frankfurt, completely bypassing his gig in Stockholm and finding himself lost in Finland thanks to a dodgy GPS. And that life, he says, is good to him.

Otis Gibbs 1

Otis Gibbs

And his stories are brilliant, whether he’s recounting dodgy experiences in truck stops or telling of his bonkers upbringing in Wanamaker, Indiana, surrounded by naked hillbilly women, taken to the local honky tonk so he could sing for tips that his “uncle” would then drink away. In song, though, his stories are even more seductive. “Caroline” is peopled with the kinds of characters familiar from James McMurtry’s blue-collar desolation. I particularly like “Kansas City”, with that pin sharp setting of a desolate hotel room like a faded Hopper and the elegance of construction that turns “day dream” to “dazed dream”.

He’s a charming guy, that charm never more evident than in the appreciation he has for everyone who turns out to hear him. He goes off mike for the final number, weaving his way through the audience, serenading us all. From a big trucking bear of a ZZ Top refugee, it’s a remarkably sweet way to end a gig. A regular visitor, he’s well worth catching up with. Highly, highly recommended.

Cowboy Junkies, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, 23/1/13

Posted in Gig review by raymondsoltysek on January 24, 2013
link to http://latentrecordings.com/cowboyjunkies

Cowboy Junkies

Cowboy Junkies seem to have been around for years, but rarely tour – not to Scotland anyway.  I was into them about ten years ago, then lost the thread, so I was really looking forward to reacquainting myself with them.

Pity.  The band is great – you can hear some fantastic musicianship in there, and Margo Timmins has a gorgeous, sexy, powerful voice.  The music is spot on too: they showcase a lot from their new 4-album set “The Nomad Series”, including some Vic Chestnutt covers like the lovely “See You Around”, while others like “Renmin Park” or “Late Night Radio” are fine songs.  They have a really intimate sound, all woozy chilled out feedback and fuzz.  The aesthetic is cosy with a seductive edge, emphasised by Timmins’ regularly refreshed herbal tea and the vase of tulips on a table she has by her side.  It should be great, and would have been if it had been in Oran Mor or King Tut’s or even the O2 ABC.

But it isn’t.  In fact, within two songs, I know I’m going to bail early.  Kelvingrove has organ recitals every Sunday, and that huge parping monstrosity probably works brilliantly in the setting because it can assert itself like an artillery barrage.  This closed, introverted intimacy can’t manage that;  jings, the front row of the audience is about twenty five feet away from the stage.  With a ceiling disappearing into the stratosphere and galleries sucking up sound from the central hall, the music just disappears, and the effect is of some morose, half-empty midwestern dance hall on a Friday afternoon with a down at heel band playing to the saddest people you could imagine.  The bass is a muddy blarp, the mandolin a distant squeak.  Their songs are heavy on lyrics, but even Timmins – who enunciates beautifully – can’t make herself understood.

Perhaps the Gallery wanted a piece of the Celtic Connections action; perhaps the organisers thought there’d be some novelty value in having a cult band in this setting.  But it just doesn’t work.  It’s a huge, huge pity.  I heard enough to convince me that I should get some more of their new music – the Nomad Series is on vinyl, by gum! – and listen to it on my unfeasibly wonderful hi-fi to get a feeling for what they really sound like nowadays.  However, after their rendition of their classic version of “Sweet Jane” – which is surely one of the greatest covers ever, and the one we’ve been waiting for – we pack it in for the night.

Things  sound so much clearer in the car going home…

Vicente Amigo / Carminho, GRCH, 18/1/13

Posted in Gig review, World music by raymondsoltysek on January 19, 2013
Vicente Amigo

Vicente Amigo

I had begun writing a post about how  flamenco guitarists are really sexy because no other man’s fingers can make a woman move like that:  I’d also lined up a comment that Vicente Amigo is handsome enough to have stepped out of  the Mediterranean episode of your girlfriend’s ongoing 50 Shades of Grey fantasy.  However, that’s had to go, because for the second time in a  few weeks, I’ve been to a concert that’s left me missing someone I love.

My dad would have been 100 years old tomorrow.  In the 80s and early 90s, when I was just about mature enough to go on a night out with him but too immature to realise how precious that time would be, I took him to a few concerts.  They were rare, but by gum we saw some crackers: Paul Tortelier and his daughter at the RSAMD; Rostropovich playing the Bach cello suites at the GRCH.  Most of all, though, my dad loved the guitar.

I don’t know what kind of school education they had in Silesia in the 1920s, but it could make Curriculum for Excellence eat its heart out.  My dad was multi-lingual, was taught chess at school and became a war-time army champion, and learned enough guitar to be a dab hand at it until Russian frostbite turned his fingers to claws and his knuckles to concrete.  I think he always wanted me to learn to play, and made the mistake of assuming that because I could manage a tune on a flute I was actually really musical.  He bought me a second-hand guitar in my teens, but my hands were too small and soft and I lacked the patience to practice, and so he used it himself, getting frustrated at his inoperative hands.

So he was a huge Julian Bream fan (he thought John Williams a bit flash) and we saw him twice; once, solo at the RSAMD, then, most wonderfully, playing Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez at the GRCH.  I remember shooshing him when he got a little too carried away in the adagio; who the fuck doesn’t?   I wish I hadn’t been such a prick, and had just joined him in a chorus of “We love you Julian, oh yes we do…”.

Within a dozen bars of Amigo coming on stage, solo, and launching into a dizzyingly brilliant flamenco piece, I wish so much my dad was sitting beside me.  He would have been gobsmacked.  I can see him now, leaning forward (a habit I’ve developed), concentrating himself totally, losing himself.  I think he would have thought he’d just seen the one of the best guitarists ever: I know I do.

Amigo is some player.  His brand of jazz-flamenco is fantastic, those Moorish elements that make flamenco truly multicultural echoed in a band that includes muezzin-like vocals from across the Med.  He hasn’t updated his website for some time, so I can’t find the names of the band members, but they are all excellent.  He has also been working with Celtic musicians on a  project entitled “Tierra”, and the result is a persuasive fusion that hopefully will be recorded.  However, surrounded by a dozen musicians, it’s always Amigo who dominates proceedings. It may be that his instrument is tweaked a little louder than anyone else’s, but it’s more down to the fact that whatever he does, it is twice as technically stunning as anyone else on stage.  He starts at 9pm:  I have to bail at 10.40 with no sign of him leaving the stage.  Quantity and quality: how’s that for value for money?

I actually came to tick another fado star off my list:  Carminho is the latest thing, and lovely she is too.  Her voice is more fluid than many fadistas, with grace notes like oil, and she has a subtlety that some big belters certainly lack.  She too has been working with a Celtic signer (Maeve… I lose the surname), and while Gaelic and the fado style don’t go together too well, certainly Carminho’s richness of voice complements the rhythms and melodies beautifully when they do it the Celtic way.  It’s all precise and pitch perfect and perchink, and in many places gorgeous; however, she doesn’t move me the way some do.  I don’t get the hairs rising on the back of my neck as I do when I listen to Ana Moura; nor do I get that overwhelming feeling of warmth and joy and bonhomie I feel when Ana Bacalhau struts her stuff.  But I’m more than happy to blame the venue: as ever, the buttoned-up GRCH is no place to build relationships with a  performer.  I’m sure if I’d seen her live in the little Aqui del Rei in Faro on a boozy Friday evening, I’d be bowling off into the night in a daze, madly in love with yet another fadista.

My dad would have been too.

Things to see at Celtic Connections 2013.

Posted in Music review by raymondsoltysek on December 24, 2012

Finally got round to booking some of my annual Celtic Connections gigs.  The line up is larger than ever – but, to be honest, nothing absolutely jumped out at me.  However, I’m sure I’ll have fun.

link to Carminho.net

Carminho

First up is Vicente Amigo,  the Spanish flamenco artist and composer described by Pat Metheny as the greatest guitarist alive.  This, for example, is fabulous.  Should be good, especially as he’s supported by yet another fadista to go gaga at:  Carminho is 27 and the latest big thing in fado.  I have her breakthrough album, and she’s excellent – though I don’t respond to her music the way I do to Ana Moura or Deolinda or Misza.  It feels just a little too trad for me – but it’s another to tick off, my first fadista of the year, and there’s no doubting she has oodles of charisma when she sings something like “A Bia Da Mouraria“.  To be honest, I’d love to go on holiday to Lisbon some time this year and trawl the fado bars: perhaps I’ll try to time it to coincide with Deolinda’s new album and get to hear them showcase it in their home town.

After that, I’m hitting The Roaming Roots Review, largely because it’s packed with lots of goodies I’ve seen over the last couple of years:  the barnstorming Lau; the Fabulous Beth Orton; the drop dead beautiful Gemma Hayes.  They’ll be some other goodies too: Roddie Hart produces some nice folk pop, and Amy Helm sounds good fun.

Then, if I can get the booking sorted, I want to see the sultry Cowboy Junkies.  The online booking system seems a mess this year: it didn’t automatically deduct my 15% member’s discount, then gave me one wheelchair ticket for the Junkies and didn’t tell me I could have had two standing tickets.  They’ll phone me back.  I hope I get to see them: Margo Timmins is one of the most effortlessly sexy singers, and they produce gorgeous, tight music, including one of the best Elvis covers ever in their version of “Blue Moon“. It’ll be a blast from the past.

Then a night of Sahara Soul, especially to see Bassekou Kouyate with N’Goni Ba.  I saw them in 2009, and it was my joint gig of the year.  The n’goni is a fantastic instrument, looking like a four-stringed cricket bat you’d make in the garden shed; in the hands of these guys, it produces some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard.  Check this out. I’ve deliberately chosen the standing section at the Royal Concert Hall because dancing will be obligatory.

John Fullbright

John Fullbright

Finally, for now, every Celtic Connections must have a bit of Americana, so I’m off to see Otis Gibbs and John Fullbright at the Glasgow Art Club.  Gibbs is a grizzled Steve Earle type, while Fullbright looks even more interesting.  In his early twenties, he looks a great musician and songwriter, and may well be my find of the Festival.

So all in all, there’s plenty to keep me occupied.  Unfortunately, some of the biggies are already booked out: I’d have loved to see Bellowhead, and the Transatlantic session with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eric Bibb and Aoife O’Donovan would have been excellent, but I wasn’t quick enough off the mark.  I’m also a little disappointed at the number of concerts in the seated venues:  The Old Fruitmarket is one of my favourite venues because you can get a good jig on, but there’s nothing on there I really want to see.

However, it’s a good start to 2013, and, if I’d made it to Kazakhstan, I wouldn’t be seeing any of it…

Bonnie Prince Billy, Old Fruitmarket, 29/1/12

Posted in Gig review by raymondsoltysek on January 30, 2012
link to Bonnie Prince Billy

Bonnie Prince Billy

Right out of the textbook of emo.alt.country.americana (in fact, he may have written it) that includes such oddities as Ray LaMontaigne and Bon Iver, Will Oldham brings a thoughtful, gentle set from Kentucky.

I’m reading a history of the Civil War at the moment, and Oldham looks as if he’s stepped right out from the photographs of Southern farmers who took up arms against the Union; either that, or he’s a 30′s train track troubadour, an aesthetic reinforced when he grabs the thighs of this jeans and jigs like a hobo with restless leg syndrome.

I’ve a couple of his albums, and like them a lot though find them a little one-paced.  It’s the same with the show, but it doesn’t seem to matter because it’s all quality stuff: lyrically, he keeps you riveted with the complexity of layers of meaning that feel almost like sermons (“Don’t go to bed if you know that something’s waiting to grab you in the night and throttle hope from your heart / Don’t close your eyes if the ills are fornicating and conceiving of an evil to break you from the start”); musically, the impeccable harmonies (partly helped along by powerhouse waif Angel Olsen) and brilliant musicianship are more than enough to maintain interest.  He reminds me of Don McLean in many ways, not of the overblown  “American Pie” and “Vincent” singles but of the folk-tinged intensity of albums like “Homeless Brother” and “Tapestry”, or songs like “Winterwood” or “Empty Chairs”.  He has a similar voice too, I think: powerful, an extensive range, capable of real subtlety and emotion.  It’s a fine instrument.  He also has the same eye and ear for the details of life and love, and is brave enough to capture them in songs that lay human existence bare.

He examines the poverty of the dirt poor farmer in songs like “Quail and Dumplings”, and the influence of the hymns of the Bible Belt, harmonium and all, can be heard in “Cows” (which, like McLean’s “Babylon”, ends with a spine tingling round), while songs like “No Match” and “You Win” seem to speak of the emotional and physical exhaustion of… well, just living and loving, really.  Not that this is in any way morbid: it’s gentle, honest, reflective, wry, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Support is provided by a Norwegian singer (the third in 6 months!) called Susanna Wallumrød .  She has a good voice and plays the piano well.  She also sings everything – including the greatest hits of AC/DC, Kiss and Dollie Parton - at relentlessly funereal pace.  Hmmm.

Julie Fowlis, “Heisgeir”, The Mitchell Library, 27/1/11

Posted in film review, Gig review, Society by raymondsoltysek on January 27, 2012
link to Julie Fowlis

Julie Fowlis

The evening kicks off with Fernhill, a Welsh quartet consisting of a lead vocalist, a guitar, a fiddle and – a little bizarrely – a muted trumpet.   It works well, largely due to Julie Murphy’s lovely voice, and there is one exceptional song, Glyn Tawe, in which fiddle player Christine Cooper recites a section of prose poetry that is beautifully evocative of summers in a rural idyll now lost: it’s the kind of stuff Kathryn Tickell does so wonderfully.  This is a good band, but they’re not helped by the quality of the sound system, which is barely adequate for a school show.

Julie Fowlis is a charming, warm host, a mean player of the penny whistle and the owner of perhaps the purest and sweetest voice in Scottish music.  She warms up with a few numbers, complete with cheeky interplay between her and her band.  I’ve never seen her before, but she feels like an old friend, and that’s a very special charisma to be able to convey on stage.

“Heisgeir” is the main event.  A film project she’s been working on for the last year, it’s a wonderful and vitally important cultural artefact, chronicling as it does the lives linked to the tiny deserted Hebridean island.  The people interviewed – including the last person born on the island – are fascinating and heartwarming, and what is clear from them is just how much Gaelic culture has retained that we have lost.  Their names – so, so long – are almost a catalogue of lineage, and their daily names, like Black Haired Iain of the Blizzard or McCordum of the Seals, are testament to stories passed down from generation to generation like the Epic of Gilgamesh.  And what stories:  the sole survivor of a drowned boat eking out his existence until his rescue by eating the ground tongue of the one cow that swam away from the same wreck; the horse that could tell the future, refusing to pass a point on the track until the day they found the body of a drowned lighthouse keeper there.  Age, lineage, family, history – all are vital to these people. They wrap themselves up in the lessons of their past while we grub about looking only to the future, and that is a horrible, dark place where only work and debt and death await us.  Oh, to know you’re part of something much, much greater.

That’s why one old man, speaking of the many versions of the song he has just sung, says that he learned it from his father, who learned it from someone older, “and,” he says, “I am happy with that.”  That’s why the youngest person in the film, a middle-aged fisherman son of a fisherman, speaks of reciting the old place names so that they are not forgotten; names that identified a bay, a skerry, a cliff, a single rock;  names that held significance because in them they told story upon story of the people who coined them.

Fowlis and her band, backlit behind the sailcloth used as a screen, interject some beautiful songs: she herself admits that the whole project started off as a film to support a musical project, but became a film with music because of the importance of the people in it.  Appearing ethereally from time to time, they seem like the ghosts of the many men drowned at sea, or lonely spirits wandering the broken down community, or sprites amongst the machair.  It is quite enchanting.

I sometimes hear people moaning about tax payers’ money going to support Gaelic.  Let it die, they say, why should I pay to keep alive a language that I don’t speak and isn’t any use in the modern world?  Well, this film gives us reason enough.   I don’t want to live in a world so arid that we can’t look back on the people of only four or so generations ago, can’t watch films of them, study their photographs, and not know what they sounded like.  Every language lost – and dozens disappear every year – means the loss of a history, of stories, of music, of meaning.  Every language lost is like another endangered species tipping into extinction.  The few quid it might cost me in taxes is worth keeping that alive, and I’d much rather spend it on this kind of beauty than hand it over in some banker’s bonus, or have it used to send young men to Afghanistan to kill and be killed.

I don’t understand Gaelic, but I care enough about humanity to know that to let it die, to lose all the beauty that “Heisgeir” shows us, to lose all that has gone before that these people have strived so hard to preserve, would be a crime of cultural vandalism as bad as any book burning dictatorship the world has ever known: perhaps worse, because it would have happened not because of ideology, but because of short-sightedness, selfishness and complacency.

If there is a God, he should bless this film and the lovely music it has inspired.

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