Capercaillie put down a marker for Celtic fusion back in the late 1980s. They straddled the divide between the Celtic rockmeister Alan Stivell and the more commercial early incarnation of The Corrs. Most recently, live gigs have been rare and there’s been an unwholesome break between album releases.
However the band have prevailed and their authentic and contemporary take on Gaelic folk has won over audiences wherever they go. The first time I saw the band was at a local Hotel twenty years ago – really a folk club gig – and marvellous for that. Now, in the confines of a more salubrious and seated theatre only a stones throw away from the ‘Vic’, their stellar musicianship and interplay can be admired afresh.
Of course vocalist Karen Matheson provides the sort of flawless frontage that many bands can only aspire to whilst the band includes Michael McGoldrick – a superb solo artist in his own right (flute and pipes) and Charlie McKerron (fiddle) who with Donald Shaw’s accordion work up a storm on the dances together with the rock solid rhythms of Ewen Vernal (bass) with Che Beresford (drums) and David Robertson (percussion). And Manus Lunny – who provided sympathetic guitar or bouzouki throughout – also wrote a set highlight tonight - ‘Nil Si I nGRA’ – originally from 1995′s excellent ‘To The Moon’.
Anyone investigating Capercaillie’s music – and not naturally drawn to folk music sung in its native tongue – may be cautious but they have no need to worry. As the new album ‘At The Heart Of It All’ demonstrates, you don’t have to be a native to appreciate the fine melodies and subtleties. However when Karen does sing in English it is equally exquisite as on the Dick Gaughan song ‘Both Sides The Tweed’.
As you would expect in a celebratory 30th Anniversary tour the band recalled their earlier repertoire but strangely lacking songs from their breakthrough album ‘Delerium’ (1991). This wasn’t really a set of “greatest hits” although the inclusion of ‘The Miracle Of Being’ (reworked with world music producer Will Mowat on their 1994 album) underlined the new album’s absence of cutting edge and crossover that was present in their earlier gestation.
The pacing of this gig was invariably ballad followed by jig and this approach also informed the encores. The band chose to finish with a couple of jigs which didn’t involve their singer so she made an early exit from the stage, whereas a more upbeat vocal – as in set closer ‘The Tree’ – might have served them better keeping her on stage to the end.
As ever, it is the jigs and reels which provide the most inspirational lift and for which this band are renowned. “A wonderful noise” is probably the best description. However, tonight, the salubrious surroundings did act as a dampener and suggested those jigs and reels better lend themselves to more intimate surroundings and beer in glasses, not plastic cups. The audience – which included what appeared to be a party of schoolgirls cheering a boy-band and a narky matron who thought my phone was too bright as I valiantly attempted to note the setlist – seemed polarised and far too polite.
These local foibles aside, Capercaillie seamlessly meld traditional tunes whilst providing a contemporary twist and – three decades on – we hope they’ll be plundering old Scottish songbooks for some time to come.
Review by David Randall
Tour dates 2013
26 November – Kendal, Brewery Arts Centre
29 November – London, Queen Elizabeth Hall
30 November – Birmingham, Town Hall
1 December – Manchester, Academy – this is an all seated gig
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