Mairi Orr. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Sunday 28th June 2015

Morar raised, Edinburgh based Mairi Orr released her debut album this week and she was fortunate enough to have two launch parties celebrating this achievement. She played Edinburgh last weekend and tonight it was Glasgow’s turn. Reviewing the album, Jenny Does Burn Blabber’n’Smoke mentioned that Orr had gathered together a “dream band” whose playing, along with her fine voice and writing skills raised the album well above the bar. For the launch shows she was able to retain the majority of this gifted bunch with Steven Polwart on guitar, Dave Currie, Dobro and guitar, Nico Bruce double bass and Mattie Foulds on percussion while Danny Hart’s fiddle parts were handed over to a fellow Morar musician, Eilidh Shaw. From the off it was clear that the all acoustic ensemble were something special, the opening song, The Drover delivered with a haunting sense of mystery with Polwart’s guitar and Currie’s Dobro slyly weaving together over cymbal washes and delicate mallet playing from Foulds. As the song slowly unfolded they were spellbinding, memories of Fairport Convention, The Pentangle and other stalwarts from the heyday of folk rock were summoned up. The song itself is a tremendous invocation of ancient days but the playing was, simply put, gobsmackingly brilliant, sending shivers up the spine.

They played all of the songs from the album although the running order was rejigged. It was a hard task to follow the opening number but the brisk fiddle led country romp of Don’t You Wed Another Man, Maggie was up to the job allowing Eilidh Shaw to shine and featuring some fine counterpoint singing. The title song swayed exotically and hearing it live one felt that it was reminiscent of the late Kirsty MacColl’s ventures into Latin American music. In fact hearing the album fleshed out live offered insights into some of the songs that were not immediately apparent from the record. I’m Not A Gambling Man revealed its debts to Hank Williams and Western swing while Just A Fallow Year seemed to have more of Richard Thompson’s bleakness than was apparent on the album.

Orr was engaging as she introduced several of the songs explaining their origins. She spoke about growing up in Morar on Silver Sands, family memories on The Piper of Peanmeanach and Summer On The Clyde and of her mother’s search for a cluster of Ragged Robin flowers. The delicacy of the band playing amplified the sense of nostalgia (and sometimes, regret) embodied in these songs although there was also some welcome bawdiness on the rousing The Drinker’s Wife. However they kept the best to the last with an astounding version of Letting It Go, a song of regret that on the album again harks back to Richard Thompson like melancholy. Here the band slowly built to a climax with the instruments meshing together anchored by some muscular bass playing from Bruce as the fiddle skirled and Dobro snaked away to create a devilish din with Orr raising her voice over the maelstrom. A cracking performance it bookended the show perfectly. There was time for an encore and they ran through a grand version of Dirk Powell’s Moonshiner with Dobro and fiddle battling away and a definite Celtic air to the delivery.


Mairi Orr. Jenny Does Burn

Blabber’n’Smoke first encountered Scots singer and songwriter Mairi Orr back in 2012 when she appeared at Celtic Connections. She sang songs from her debut release, the five song EP The Gathering Crows, an impressive disc which we reviewed here. Three years on and Orr has her full length debut released this week with an album launch gig at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe this Sunday, 28th June. The album, Jenny Does Burn, is self-released after a successful Kickstarter campaign and additional funding from Creative Scotland.

We likened Orr to several singers when reviewing The Gathering Crows including Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, Jacqui McShee and Shelagh McDonald. On Jenny Does Burn Orr has found her own voice and the most likely comparisons are to the likes of Eddi Reader, Karine Polwart, Siobhan Miller, Julie Fowlis and Heidi Talbot. Not that Orr sounds like any of these but she joins their ranks as a strong singer/songwriter with an acute sense of modern folk influenced music. Anyone who listens to these singers will see that there are names which crop up time and time again as the cream of Scotland’s acoustic music scene are becoming a most incestuous bunch (musically speaking). In keeping with this Orr has been able to gather together a dream outfit who combine to give the album a wonderful lift and lilt with some beautiful playing. Be it a glowering folk ballad or a banjo led country stomp the band are superb; featuring Steven Polwart: guitars, mandolin, vocals, Mattie Foulds: drums, percussion (and production duties), Nico Bruce: double bass, Fraser Fifield: low whistle, Dave Currie: dobro, Danny Hart: fiddle, bluegrass banjo, mandolin and Mark Woods: clawhammer banjo they curl and weave and pluck with a warm and engaging empathy for Orr’s songs.

As for the songs, Orr writes about family memories and delves into Scottish history with ease. The title song commemorates Janet (Jenny) Horne, the last woman to be burned for practising witchcraft in Scotland. Surprisingly Orr opts not for a traditional folk song style here but instead offers a sly, almost bluesy tango as she sings about the fate of Jenny and the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance. In fact with the exception of the opening song, The Drover, a brooding encounter between a drover and a reiver (herdsman and bandit) with sinister Dobro sneaking throughout an atmospheric arrangement Orr is defiantly contemporary. The up tempo fiddle and banjo of Don’t You Wed Another Man Maggie and Drinker’s Wife relate to current bluegrass music allowing the players to cut loose on their respective instruments as Orr crosses the Transatlantic gap with ease. There are several introspective songs that allow the band to shine gently. Letting Me Go is a portrait of a failed relationship that recalls the work of Richard Thompson while Just A Fallow Year is a melancholic yearning song about childlessness that floats on a wonderful Dobro and guitar fuelled dreamland. Orr tops these with the light-footed lilting ballad that is The Promise with the band breezing though a filigreed blend of guitar and Dobro belying the heartache in the lyrics.

Family and home account for several of the songs. On The Shore is a solid folk rock song that commemorates Orr’s home in Morar as she recalls the silver sands. The Piper Of Peanmeaneach salutes an ancestor who fought in the Boer war and was inspired by the discovery of an old photograph with Fraser Fifield’s whistle adding a wistful air. Summer On The Clyde (1914) is a fine close to the album as Orr sings about the innocence of a youthful crew messing about on the Clyde before enduring the agonies of the Great War. Again she captures the moment perfectly with a perfectly nuanced sense of nostalgia and regret.

As we said the album is out this week. Mairi played an East coast launch party in Edinburgh last weekend and this Sunday she brings her band to The Glad Cafe to introduce Glasgow to this very fine album.

Blue Rose Code/M. G. Boulter/Wrenne. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Wednesday 1st October.

Blabber’n’Smoke has to admit that it’s a bit of a latecomer to the music of Blue Rose Code, the vehicle for Edinburgh born Ross Wilson’s song poetry. A chance hearing of Boscombe Armistice on Celtic Music FM a few weeks ago stopped us in our tracks as this winsome pedal steel laced gem wafted from the speakers and Wilson’s Scots burr crooned about his granny saying he’d start a fight in an empty hoose. I suppose we’re much more used to hearing Scottish accents in songs these days with The Proclaimers leading the way while you wouldn’t contemplate King Creosote or Aidan Moffat adopting a transatlantic drawl. But there was more here, the song conjured up memories of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece and even Astral Weeks with its haunting quality and impressionistic feel. In these instant internet days the album The Ballads of Peckham Rye was almost immediately summoned up and pretty much floored me. A magnificent trawl from Leith to London with side trips to the corner of the northern isles to the peak of the antipodes the album is a psychogeographic trip as Wilson summons up a mystic Celtic hinterland finely balanced by a couthy Scottishness that would be familiar to readers of The Broons. As for the music it inhabits that folk/jazz hybrid that Morrison invented on Astral Weeks along with nods to Jackie Leven and John Martyn, helped indeed by having the legendary Danny Thompson on double bass duties.

The Ballads Of Peckham Rye came out on CD a few months ago but this week was given a vinyl release and in tandem with this Wilson assembled a road troupe for a short tour. The show at The Glad Cafe was packed to the rafters and accordingly blisteringly hot, however the audience stalwarts were rewarded with a show that surely rates as one of the best of the year. A mini revue almost, both support acts were plucked from the Blue Rose Code line up with Wilson introducing them. First up was Wrenne, a singer he first encountered “playing a nylon strung guitar, barefoot, at a Secret Garden Party.” Singing songs from her forthcoming album along with a cover of Steven Merrit’s The Book Of Love her voice impressed, an opinion confirmed later as she sang some magnificent harmonies in the main set. Next up was M. G. Boulter, pedal steel gunslinger for the likes of Simone Felice when he’s in town. Boulter’s pedal steel graces The Ballads of Peckam Rye but he’s also a solo artist and a member of Southend’s The Lucky Strikes. His acoustic set saw him in a line of succession from Loudon Wainwright III and Alan Hull, bare boned songs that have a bleak yet hopeful outlook. Descriptive of Southend On Sea, chip shops, ice cream men (and their demise) featured but his best was the wonderful and evocative Once I Was from his fine album, The Water Or The Wave.


The stage was well set then for Blue Rose Code, tonight a five piece with Wilson at the front, Boulter on pedal steel and Dobro and Wrenne on harmony vocals along with Nico Bruce on double bass and Lyle Watt playing acoustic guitar and mandolin. From the off it was obvious that this was going to be something special. Rippling guitars introduced Silent Drums before Bruce’s bass burbled into action sucking the audience into the slipstream. Wrenne’s vocals slipped and slid around Wilson, recalling that other vocal duo Birds Of Chicago, as the band gently billowed like a fine wind pushing the ship forward with Lyle Watt’s guitar embroidering the sound. Wilson took us on a journey that went back to his childhood with Ghosts Of Leith via Edina up to his London travails on Whitechapel (where he slipped in a Drumchapel to some applause). Come The Springtime was described as a hope for the future and comes across as a magnificent update to what one might imagine to be a traditional Scots song. Norman McCaig’s poem, True Ways Of Knowing was acknowledged by Wilson as an example of his late flowering into the highways and byways of Scottish literature and it’s an excellent example of written poetry set to music, a feat repeated later in the encore.

Introducing Matthew Boulter earlier Wilson declared that he had always wanted some pedal steel on his records but later said that he was reluctant to participate in the Americana Music Awards as he “wasn’t country.” The Right To Be Happy was his attempt to write a country song and tonight it swung with a fine country heft while several other songs certainly cantered into a country trot. The Hibernian folk swing persisted through the night and culminated in the first encore with Wilson and Wrenne delivering a powerful rendition of Hugh McDiarmid’s poem Scotland. Finally the band came out to perform the excellent This Is Not A Love Song which allowed them to stretch out and improvise, recalling Soho folk blues such as Pentangle in their heyday although Wilson brought it back to earth with his couthy declaration ” time after time it’s the same old shite,” a wonderful mishmash of folk purity and Scottish bare faced cheek. Overall the impression was of a magnificent warm and enveloping wit and humanity with Wilson and his players producing the finest night of the year so far.