Celtic Connections 2009: Homebound and Margaret Stewart

20 Jan 2009 in Festival, Music

Strathclyde Suite, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 18 January 2009

Margaret Stewart

YOU CAN always rely on Margaret Stewart for good singing, light entertainment, and… a few double entendres. The Lewis native was in fine fettle at the Strathclyde Suite, and she wasted little time singing songs about wayward minstrels, impotence (oh, yes, indeed), and, quite rightly, moaning about the weather.

Whether you can understand what Stewart is singing about, however, is not the point; blessed with the voice she has, she could be singing about the DFS Sale and still achieve a high sense of emotion. A modest woman, too; for someone who probably should have been headlining this concert instead of supporting it, Stewart literally apologised for holding back the main event – Homebound.

Made up of German, Indian, Russian, Portuguese, American, and yes, Scottish musicians, Homebound is one of those ambitious cross-cultural encounters that, although clever in concept, ultimately failed to hit the mark. Perhaps it was their evident lack of rehearsal, for as a collective force the mash-up of pipes, harp, tabla, drums, hurdy-gurdy and guitar appeared too loose, too frayed, to gel properly.

The complex time signatures certainly played havoc with one or two people in the audience trying to toe-tap along to the tunes, the Russian drummer too keen on reaching the next song ahead of everybody else. He practically sabotaged the always-reliable Allan MacDonald’s Gaelic waulking song, his fussy hi-hat playing out-of-time with the melody. But when the band did hit their stride, though – particularly during the jigs – it was certainly enjoyable to watch.

The concept is German multi-instrumentalist Thomas Zoller’s idea after all, and not many are brave enough to switch from Gaelic song to Indian raga in the space of a bar without everything resulting in an audio train-wreck. There was also no shortage of laughs, either.

Halfway through the set, the entire band summed up their first impressions of Scotland in one word – “dark” – and the group’s female Alaskan harpist brought about the biggest laugh of the night following a tale from Moller about the time it snowed during a visit to Skye: “There was a quarter inch of snow and the whole island shut down,” she said. “Coming from Alaska, I find that hilarious.” And so did the audience.

Later on, the highlight came in the form of some wild-eyed, very hip, tabla ‘n’ cello call-and-response playing (surely the coolest new music genre), before a fantastic all-band version of a Gaelic tune Margaret Stewart had sung a cappella only an hour earlier reared its cosy little head. Clever, yes, but never entirely satisfying.

With some smoothing of the edges, Homebound would improve ten-fold. They may not have deserved an encore, but it brought about the most charming moment of the evening, as one by one, the band departed the stage leaving piper Alan MacDonald all on his lonesome to finish the tune. Looking round to see where the band had gone, the others snuck up beside MacDonald, but, unfortunately – and we mean this in the best possible way, Allan – not even the collective strength of the others could properly lift Allan, and his chair, off the stage. Sadly, like the majority of the set, the band couldn’t quite pull that off, either.

© Barry Gordon, 2009