Live Music + Gig Reviews

Julie Fowlis @ Union Chapel, London

24 October 2008

BBC Folk Singer Of The Year Julie Fowlis’s star has been on the rise for some time.

The diminuitive Herbridean Gaelic singer, one of the stars of the Barbican’s Rogue’s Gallery show earlier this year, is touring in support of new album Clr r (Dual), her latest collection of traditional folk tunes.

Many voices in the bar prior to her set are distinctly Scottish; does she has a fan club following her around the country?

It’s assumed that only 60,000 people in the world speak Gaelic, so a whole evening of songs in a language most in the room would fail to comprehend could have proved a struggle. Instead, it quickly becomes apparent that we’re in for a treat.

Fowlis opens the show solo, showcasing a voice and a language replete with such rhythmic cadences as to take a tune and transfigure it. And her talent for storytelling – in English – matches the otherworldly sound of her voice as she endearingly explains the stories behind the Gaelic lyrics, most of which seem to have been written some 100 years ago.

For the first stint Fowlis is surrounded by men playing instruments while she sings. But when the band launch into traditional tunes she picks up a whistle and pootles along with fiddler Duncan Chisholm in harmony; his droll, borderline surreal interjections through the evening prove a worthy counter of Fowlis’s Irish husband and bouzouki player Eamonn Doorley’s own. For every Scots tinged fable of woe from Fowlis and Chisholm, Doorley has a cheeky Irish counterpoint.

Longest of the anecdotes is a tale concerning their tour stop in Leeds. Apparently somebody broke into their car… and left them an accordion. “She learnt it in a week,” tisks the doting Doorley as his spouse picks up the instrument and makes easy use of it.

Later she explains how she was approached to create a cover of The Beatles‘ Blackbird for a magazine covermount promotion; translating the song into Gaelic, Lon-dubh was the result. It is enthusiastically received, the lead guitar part turned over to bouzouki and Fowlis’s vocals painting it in ethereal colours.

A trio of tunes follow as the seated audience keeps time with a collective footstamp, and then we’re offered a long explanation for one number about a ferry crossing to the mainland in high seas. Just in time, Fowlis decides to summarise the tale: “It’s a song about two men being sick on a boat.”

Unassuming bodhran player Martin O’Neill returns for a solo encore in which he summons a veritable big band using only his drum. Rapturous applause is bestowed as the rest of the band trot back on, Fowlis this time sporting bagpipes. Actual bagpipes. In London.

She’ll return to the capital once more this year, playing at the Under One Sky night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Head along, for if you’d not heard, folk music is not just for berbeards supping ale. Julie Fowlis is proof that the younger generation is more than capable of making this music sparkle well into the 21st century.

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