BRONA McVITTIE – Live at the Tea House Theatre, Vauxhall, London

Brona McVittie - live
Photograph by Tony Birch

London is a city divided by the Thames, so “heading south of The River” always adds a little something to an occasion.  In this case it was only just south, to the Tea House Theatre based in an old Victorian public house that opened in 1886 on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens as immortalised as the ‘Vanity Fair’ in Thackeray’s novel.  The occasion was the album launch of Brona McVittie’s We Are The Wildlife.

This is Brona’s début album, although she has appeared before on albums as a member groups including the London Lasses and neo-impressionist outfit littlebow, and it is very good.  There was no supporting act for the show, but some excellent backing musicians were used as required on each song so we had almost a series of scenes and the stage was well laid out to allow easy access and exit meaning it ran very smoothly.

The evening opened with just Brona and her harp for ‘Newry Mountain’, a traditional Irish piece featured on the album that is a very gentle love song, and so eased us in to the evening.  I say it was just voice and instrument but here we have a traditionalist who lets tradition guide rather than dictate how the music sounds.  As is so often the case these days electronics were used on most tracks either for effects or to provide a backing.  When done well, as it was here, that isn’t something I have problems with as I’m sure Turlough O’Carolan would have been interested if such devices had been around in his time.  After all, some of his contemporaries considered him too modern.

The second song of the evening also nodded to tradition, with ‘When The Angels Wake You’ based on a Yeats poem and backed by Myles Cochran on lap slide and the opening track to the album.  Yeats is a poet whom Brona uses for inspiration and that wasn’t the last poem of his to make an appearance, although we had to wait until the end for ‘The Jug Of Punch’, a parting song with is heard less frequently than ‘The Parting Glass’ but is every bit as good.

Brona is fortunate to be able to call of some terrific backing musicians, in addition to Myles Cochran, and they made a huge contribution to the evening.  Flautists Anne Garner and Keiron Phelan swapped places, with Anne also providing backing vocals alongside Barbara Marion whilst  Hutch Demouilpied’s sensitive trumpet playing fitted in perfectly. As already mentioned this mixing of sounds and players kept the evening fresh as you never knew what was coming next.

Of course, every song featured Brona and her harp so there was a common theme.  Brona’s voice compliments her chosen instrument so well with its gentle lilt and gossamer application.  This also reflects back into the songs which often have a sense of not being quite of this world.  ‘Under The Pines’ is a good example of this.  The inspiration for the song was a walk in the woods, past some dog kennels where the dog’s barks echoed off the trees so the sound became a surround rather than have a distinct direction.  Reality and fantasy collided and there were occasions where we, as the audience, weren’t quite sure which realm we were inhabiting but it certainly wasn’t part of South London surrounded by flats.

Yeats even managed to inspire an instrumental piece on the album which deserves mention for its title of heroic proportions.  ‘The Vast And Vague Extravagance That Lies At The Bottom Of  The Celtic Heart’ drew on most of the band and this slow, lilting piece brought soft rain and gentle landscapes readily to mind.

Music can touch many emotions but this evening left a feeling of quiet relaxed satisfaction, as if leaving a dreamscape you long to return to and We Are The Wildlife is a perfect of example of traditional sounding Irish music that has found a new lease of life and vigour in recent years.  The album is now available through the artist’s website or other platforms including Amazon and Rough Trade, but if you get the chance I would strongly recommend buying it at a live show.

Finally, credit must go to the sound man for the evening, Mark Thompson, who did an excellent job balancing up instruments and voices with very different ranges, as well as joint promoters Graham Smallwood of FolkonMonday and Karen Ryan of Irish Music and Dance in London.

Tony Birch

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‘Newry Mountain’: