When I think of Scottish Gaelic Folk music performed by a singer from North Uist and a band of performers from Ireland and Scotland, my mind does not jump to London. It is a labyrinthine conurbation of epic proportions, an endless maze of streets and roads filled with a sea of bodies under the eternally lit spires of glass and steel. Southbank is just about as close to the heart of London as you can get, and equally as far from anything even remotely resembling nature.
Bu that’s where Julie Fowlis performed last night, tucked away in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a theatre adjoining the (new) Shakespeare Globe. And yet, for all of London’s faults and artificiality and urbanity, I could not have imagined a better setting for such an event. It was intimate, candle-lit, and for a brief time a small slice of Scotland was delivered into the antithetical centre of England, and we privileged few who attended were consequently stolen away.
There was just a feeling of closeness, of camaraderie: Julie and the band made everyone feel at ease, at home; from the little small talk between performances about their lives and tidbits of information on the upcoming songs, not to mention the audience participation with “Sméorach Chlann Déomhnaill” where we were taught a snippet of Gaelic for the evening to sing along in the chorus. It just felt easygoing, relaxed and personal, the music flowing freely and most welcomely.
There were deliciously touching moments in the softness of “An Rón” (The Seal), not to mention the Galician influenced “Camarinas” in all its gently sung, tender guitar and bouzouki pickings (provided by husband Eamon and the excellent principal guitarist Tony Byrne, further bridging geographical space as it tugged Spain and Scotland lightly together.
And whilst there were quiescent, withdrawn moments as Julie eked drones from the Indian Shruti Box (ala the haunting passages of “A Ghaoil, Leig Dhachaugh Gum Mathair Mi“), the event was far from maudlin; jigs and medleys were brilliantly interspersed and injected amazing energy into the crowd, particularly towards the end. “Ribinnean Riomach” in the first half was the first outburst in its quick, clipped singing, and later we were treated to a raucous, fiddle-heavy stage filler of Duncan Chisholm’s own creation that had everyone bobbing and tapping feet as he and Patsy Reid paired off their strings with heady strokes. Julie even secreted the bagpipes out right at the close to incredible effect: it was impossible not to grin.
I’d been waiting a long time to get the chance to see Julie live; there have been opportunities but the timing/geography has never coincided. It was a nerve wracking wait, and I was worried that I was going to set myself up for disappointment, that the performance would never live up the hype I’d created in my mind, but it was one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in quite some time. Here was a stage of talented musicians smuggled into the Capital for a whirlwind evening of Gaelic energy, so very far from the sparse, poetic landscape of their musical source: I doubt anyone in the room will forget the experience any time soon.