22.7.10

Hebridean Celtic Festival Review

For every boy who follows his father into the family business, there's a dozen more who push all that's expected away and tread their own path. Musically, Iain Morrison is the rare example of a man who has done both. His father, Pipe Major Iain M Morrison, is a distinguished piper of more than local renown, and Iain's handling of a set of pipes comes from tutelage at his father's knee. Yet, there was, by his own admission, a sometimes painful separation from the tradition into which most people expected to see him follow, and excel.

Iain picked up a guitar, and started to experiment. For anyone who remembers Crash My Model Car, it's obvious how far from tradition he was prepared to go. He's someone who compresses music styles, life experience and emotion into a uniquely crafted style both distinctive and impossible to classify.

Saturday night's concert was not quite a one-off. It was performed once before at Glasgow's Celtic Connections, but it's likely never to be performed again. It's a moment of completion in personal and musical terms, both for Iain and, probably, for his father - especially performed to a local audience here in Stornoway. Iain's been drawing together his band, his material and, for tonight, all the threads that have led him here. It shows all his painstaking work in pushing back musical boundaries, but also reaches back across the gulf of growing up to join hands once again with his father's generation.

The title of the concert, Ceòl Mòr, reflects the underlying influences of all the music performed. When the lights went down we were staring at an empty stage, but listening to a recording of Iain Morrison Sr explaining and demonstrating the canntaireachd style of teaching, by which the human voice is used to show how the pipes should sound. Iain ascribes to that style a subtlety and tonality In his understanding of music which explains why poetry and ambient sound can easily enter into his musical palette.

"I'm just going to introduce the older folk, here," said Iain after the opening number. "Rona Lightfoot and my old man." Not quite an introduction. Rona has been described as ‘a ceilidh personified' and is both a piper and a singer. She's also a proponent of Canntaireachd style, and a veritable Wikipedia of musical history.

There they sat, stage right, an elderly lady and gentleman, tapping a foot as crescendos of sound crashed around them, and coming in with sung syllables or spoken Gaelic as the moment required. Iain has built many of his songs around melodies taken from the classical piobaireachd repertoire, but it's astounding how far he has taken what can be done with that. I can only give as an example the last in the set - the oldest recorded piobaireachd, Macintosh's Lament, written in 1526 "And we're going to butcher it," said Iain, before launching into a sound that Led Zeppelin would be quite pleased with.

I am absolutely sure some people in the audience were bamboozled, even affronted, by what was happening. It was a performance of high emotions on and off stage. Respect both to Iain for making the arduous journey, and to PM Morrison (and Rona) for guiding and supporting and for being right there, on stage, in the eye of the storm. For me, this was the concert of the festival.

We had to work extremely hard as an audience to bring the band back for an encore, but we persisted, and got a repeat performance of an earlier number of his recent album Trust the Sea to Guide Me. "But we'll get it right this time," said Iain. It's possible his standards may be too high.
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