Two years on from making their debut with the Live from Union Chapel album, the twelve-strong outfit return with their first studio recording, The Thread, again underscoring their mission to interpret the works and philosophies of Robert Burns, the binding thread of the messages that inform them providing its title.
Arranged by the band members, over thirteen tracks, the words are predominantly those of Burns, some set to music for the first time, with one penned by Adam Beattie, two instrumentals from Mikey Kenney and one traditional tune.
They begin with ‘Ca’ The Yowes’, a song often erroneously attributed to Burns but in fact a pastoral poem from Ayshire poet Isabel Pagan, collected by him in 1794 and subsequently revised. Although the booklet credits Burns as editor, the lyrics, about a shepherdess who meets a shepherd lad while herding her ewes are actually Pagan’s original, Armagh’s Rioghnach Connolly on lead vocals, a minimally accompanied opening gradually given a gentle backing by strings and cittern.
As befits its theme of emotional desolation, set to to music by lead vocalist John Langan, the ruminatively strummed ‘To Ruin’ maintains the wistful mood, Dila Vardar providing backing, Fellimi Devlin bodhran and Connolly on flute. The latter returns take lead on her rustic circling guitar arrangement of the nature celebrating ‘Now Westlin Winds’ with its fiddle, viola, violin and Sonny Johns’ brushed snare before handing the vocal reins to Langan and Kenney for one of the two best known numbers, Dominic Hooper’s cello introducing ‘Parcel O’Rogues’, the instrumentation gathering in power as it proceeds, which, like the latter was also featured on the live album.
Hooper, Vardar and Connolly, again on flute, take vocal command of ‘To Daunton Me’, opening largely unaccompanied before adopting a more lustful marching rhythm burnished by Tansay Omar’s cymbal shimmers that captures the female narrator’s defiant declaration never to be seduced by an old man.
The first of the instrumentals and the only traditional number comes with a restrained yet still rousing ‘Highlanders’, Kenney, Lewis Murray and Alastair Caplin leading the fiddle charge with Dave Tunstall on border pipes, Connolly on whistle and Irish flute and Turkish bells courtesy of Vardar.
Things calm down again with ‘Ay Waukin O’, a yearning for an absent lover, written in 1790, with Caplin’s aching violin underscoring the melancholic mood, then it’s on to another familiar song in ‘Charlie is my Darling’. Originally a rousing patriotic celebration of Prince Charles Edward Stewart, the young Chevalier or Young Pretender, who led a rebellion against the English in 1745 before being defeated at Culloden the following year, Burns’ version largely dispenses with any political references and, instead, views him through the eyes of a besotted highland lass. Arranged by Vardar, who sings lead, and Fatih Ebrem it has earthy Middle Eastern colours, flourishing as the pace shifts from its slow intro to the rousing chorus.
Based on ‘The Trappan’d Maiden’, a late 17th century broadside about an English girl sold to Virginia, singing lead, Kenney gives ‘The Slave’s Lament’ a medieval troubadour arrangement with just Adam Beattie’s acoustic guitar, Hooper’s cello and Dave Tunstall on double bass.
With words and music by Beattie, who also sings solo, the sole original song is ‘Stripped To The Bone’, a powerful number about refugees (“Gave all your money to a smuggler. Boat leaves in the night”) and subsequent homelessness (“Going where the begging’s good”) , a tick tocking rhythm embellished by strings, bodhran, mandolin, flute, double bass and Turkish bells, followed by Kenney’s guitar and fiddle Celtic ambience instrumental ‘Red Jura’, he also providing the closing instrumental, the full-blooded ‘Coleman’s Fireproof Depository’ which sees Langan on cajon and the return of border pipes. Should you be curious, the title refers to a historic building in Liverpool, established around 1875 by George Coleman & Sons as a “cart owners and furniture removers” business and now, having survived a fire in the 1981 riots, converted into apartments.
Again sung and arranged by Kenney, sandwiched between these two tracks is the remaining Burns lyric, the jaunty fiddle-driven ‘The Dusty Miller’, the shortest number at just over two minutes (most clock in at over four with five pushing past the five-minute mark) and one that positively makes you want to link arms with someone and dance circles round the room.
Not that Burns is in any danger of slipping from the public consciousness, but between Eddi Reader and this collective, his work is reaching a perhaps wider and younger audience, and the band’s short set of dates, including Celtic Connections, at the tail end of next January will weave the thread even stronger.
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‘Now Westlin Winds’ – live: