Karen Matheson, at the Gateway
to International Roots Music Festival
at the Brewery Arts Centre,
Kendal, England
(9 March 2006)

Scottish singer Karen Matheson was deservedly awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the New Year Honours list, and late last year she released her third solo album, Downriver. This exciting concert was part of an illustrious line-up for this Kendal music festival, and it was encouraging to see the venue filled to capacity.

Typically at a Matheson gig most of James Grant's 10 songs from Matheson's first two albums are performed. Here there was a smaller selection (five), plus one of Grant's two songs for Downriver, two by Robert Burns, one by Sandy Denny and nine traditional Gaelic songs. This all made for a gig nicely balanced between the Gaelic and Scots/English language material.

Matheson's band had an extended line-up with Anna Massie on mandolin, fiddle and guitar, Capercaillie's drummer Che Beresford in Matheson's band for the first time, Grant himself on guitars and Capercaillie stalwarts Donald Shaw (keyboard/accordion) and Ewen Vernal (double and electric basses). This was a high-calibre ensemble and, despite four of the six being no less than half of Capercaillie, Matheson's distinctive solo sound never failed to make its own mark.

The Gaelic-dominated Downriver was well-represented. The Irish lament "Crucan na bpaiste" provided a poignant opener with Matheson immediately in top form, then Massie's mandolin was soon making an impact in "Laoidh Fhearchair Eoghainn," while Beresford's upbeat drumming style was particularly impressive in "O Nach Eisdead." Waulking and puirt a beul numbers were a great hit with the audience. Another highlight was "Calbareigh," with a beautiful recitation of Sorley Maclean's poem followed by some intensely emotional singing and instrumentation.

The Gaelic material in itself would have made for a memorable concert, but of equal quality were the Grant and Burns songs. Grant's new song "I Will Not Wear the Willow" worked particularly well live and demonstrated his versatility as a songwriter in turning to a more folk-based style. "All the Flowers of the Bough" saw the band weave an expansive sound around Matheson's beautiful voice.

Two superb encores brought the gig to a powerful climax. Burns' "Ae Fond Kiss" will surely find its way onto a future Matheson album and the stripped-back version here featured accompaniment by keys and mandolin. "Rithill aill" from Matheson's first album The Dreaming Sea had a new funked-up style with Massie shining on fiddle.

This was a much welcome venture south of the border by Matheson and a fine contribution to this excellent festival.

by Andy Jurgis
15 July 2006

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