Julie Fowlis’ Homecoming

8 Jul 2008 in Highland, Music

Spa Pavilion, Strathpeffer, 3 July 2008

Julie Fowlis on the bagpipes (photo - Ivor Hawthorne).

IT MAY NOT be 2009 Year of Homecoming yet, but Julie Fowlis made her own homecoming to an enthusiastic and welcoming audience at the Spa Pavilion fresh from the somewhat larger venues such as Glastonbury Festival, just the week before.

If she was nervous about performing on home turf – she lived for some years in Strathpeffer and was a pupil at Dingwall Academy – then she didn’t show it, opening the set with the beautifully haunting a capella strains of the pìobaireachd air ‘Fraoch a Ronaigh’ (Heather of Ronay).

The setting of the Pavilion was an entirely suitable venue for Julie to sing this, given her remembrances of pipe band rehearsals in the building with rain and wind coming in through the leaky roof – no such troubles now in the beautifully restored Victorian building.

Julie has amassed herself a band of inimitable quality and character, surrounding herself with only the finest masters of their instruments – her husband Eamon Doorley of Irish band Danu on bouzouki, Duncan Chisholm from Kiltarlity on fiddle, Irishman Tony Burn on guitar, and fellow Dòchas member Martin O’Neill on bodhran.

It is always easy to tell a band that gets on well off stage as well as on stage, and the audience was regaled with stories of their gigs in Ireland and France in recent months, stories of toenails, mobile phones and toilets, and yellow shoes.

Julie’s songs are now heard by audiences previously unfamiliar with Gaelic, through her meteoric exposure over the last few years, most recently being named as Radio 2 Folk Singer of the year 2008 and it was pleasing to note the mixture of Gaels and non-Gaelic speaking members of the audience.

Perhaps it is not so long ago that the idea of coming out on a balmy early summer evening to go into a very warm hall and listen to ‘folk’ musicians and especially something sung ‘in the Gaelic’ would have been unthinkable for many, and the fact that Gaelic song is now seen as funky and infectious, is surely a great indicator for the future development of the language and in particular for the music.

Julie’s sets included songs and fiery tunes from both her albums – her first Mar a tha mo Chridh and last year’s Cuilidh, interspersed with solo items from Duncan Chisholm, who played the beautiful Phil Cunningham penned air ‘The Gentle Light That Wakes Me’ and ‘Planxty Davies’ from Tony Burn on guitar.

For those who thought that there is no way the bodhran could ever sound like a double bass, well, you have not heard Martin O’ Neill. Multi instrumentalist Julie also of course contributed on the whistle, button box and her Highland bagpipes.

Amongst the vocal highlights of the evening, were the beautiful ‘Tha mo ghaol air àird a Chuain’, a love song which travelled to Cape Breton from Scotland then came back eventually to be discovered on an old tape in Eamon’s family home in Ireland some years ago, tight toe tapping sets of puirt a beul, ‘Bodach Odhar’ and the by now signature tune ‘Hug air a Bhonaid Mhor’ with its driving, pulsing rhythms. No doubt Julie will have located more gems such as this, for her next album.

It is to be hoped that more than a few holiday makers strayed for once from their resident hotel entertainment in Strathpeffer last night and found themselves in the Spa Pavilion. Perhaps they will leave the area with a more contemporary, more relevant and more excited viewpoint of Scottish music than they possessed beforehand.

Gaelic music, and in particular Gaelic song – particularly when sung by an artist as unassuming and natural as Julie – has the ability to move the senses in a hitherto unknown fashion. It doesn’t need to be flashy, have driven rhythm sections or multi layered backing tracking tracks to be artistically effective.

All it takes is a voice, a personality and stories, a few musicians who are masters of their trade and the ability to communicate with an audience, to provide an evening of enjoyable and emotive entertainment – even if you don’t speak the language.

© Fiona MacKenzie, 2008