Karen Matheson &
the Scottish Ensemble
at the Citizens' Theatre,
Glasgow, Scotland
(1 October 2005)

Karen Matheson has been forging a fascinating solo career for herself since 1996 when she released her debut solo album, The Dreaming Sea. She's been lead singer with Scottish band Capercaillie for over 21 years. Her performance at the Citz Theatre Glasgow last night was something quite special -- a lovely venue, all red and gold and cosy and intimate; nobody in the audience is ever far from the stage.

First thing I noticed was Donald Shaw's concert piano and harmonium (and I couldn't help but admire the very "luvvy-esque" bright pink stool next to it -- looked like a stage prop!) -- he brought his accordion on stage later. Karen's mic was stage centre. To her right, James Grant's acoustic guitars/banjo/dobro were set out (though he didn't play dobro). Arranged in an "arc" behind the three main musicians were the 12 music stands of the Scottish Ensemble, whose new director is Jonathan Morton. He's their principal violinist, supported by a half dozen violinists, two viola players, two cellists and a double bassist -- all present and correct last night. Fifteen first-rate musicians in total.

I loved the way the set was arranged around an informal interval. At the beginning of each half, the ensemble performed pieces by Grieg, Bartok and others (including some lovely interpretations of folk tunes) -- but my favourite piece by far was a performance of Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Summer)." Morton's solo was exquisite, really intense and passionate -- what an interpreter of tango nuevo! I bumped into him after the performance, and he told me he "couldn't get enough of Piazzolla." As if I hadn't guessed.

Reflecting on Karen's set afterwards, I couldn't help thinking that she's extracted all her favourite elements of her solo work and distilled them into what we heard last night -- I saw/heard it all as a fascinating kind of "stripping back" to the essence of her solo work. The key elements seem to be husband Donald (of course!) -- his supportive piano/keyboard playing and intuitive listening/arranging skills (just watch him concentrating when Karen sings); Grant's beautiful songs and guitar playing; and all those heart-tugging string arrangements. It also got me thinking that Karen's solo music cuts across an increasingly wide spectrum -- jazz, folk, Celtic, contemporary -- and now -- which I hadn't really thought of before -- classical!

The set list included songs from Karen's eagerly awaited (mainly Gaelic) album Downriver (to be released on Oct. 24), and a good selection of material from both The Dreaming Sea and Time to Fall.

The first song was "Crucan Na Bpaiste" (from Downriver) -- I think the Irish Gaelic words are by Brendan Graham. Karen explained that the song described a mother's grief at the loss of her child. Unbearably poignant, if she hadn't told us what it was about you still would have known the lyric was harrowing/poignant. Her voice was to remain strong yet emotionally affecting all evening.

Then she sang an intensely beautiful song written by James Grant, "I Will Not Wear the Willow." I wish I could recall the repeated words that Karen sang so movingly at the song's close, but this song is a murder ballad from a female perspective. I hope the words come back to me soon; it's maddening not to remember them. It had a timeless yet contemporary feel to it too -- you get a very similar feeling from Karine Polwart's songwriting. It's impossible to convey the depth of feeling the poignant string arrangements lent to these two new songs.

Also from Downriver, she sang "Luadh an Toraidh" and a puirt featuring the superb Capercaillie song, "Finlay's" (this one went down really well with the audience). It didn't seem to really matter that Karen didn't sing more new material, because the arrangements of her older songs were so radically different -- it was like hearing the songs afresh. You found yourself recalling the bits where the drums or other sounds come in on the studio album, and thinking -- "I'm not missing those at all." I kept comparing the new arrangements with the VERY contemporary arrangements I heard at Karen's Celtic Connections gig in January, and couldn't decide which I preferred best.

The rest of the set comprised "Bonnie Jean," "There's Always Sunday," "All the Flowers of the Bough," "The Silver Whistle (An Fhideag Airgid)," "The Dreaming Sea," "Ae Fond Kiss" (dedicated to the late Kevin McCrae and his beautiful string arrangements), "At the End of the Night," "Moonchild," "Time to Fall" and "Evangeline." It was all lovely -- vocally and instrumentally. Shaw played a lot of harmonium in the second set. Grant played guitar to his usual excellent standard -- it surprised me that "Moonchild" was yet again one of my favourite arrangements of the night (intensely jazzed up) as the album version isn't a favourite at all. The ensemble seemed to love playing it, and Grant's acoustic solo was superb -- his backing vocals always sound great to me, too. The string arrangements behind every song were quite beautiful to hear.

You couldn't describe this evening as a "gig" -- we're talking "performance" here! There was quite a reverential vibe among the audience -- some serious listening going on. Everyone I talked to loved it all. Karen seemed happy and relaxed, and had a friendly rapport with the audience. All that remains to be said is "bring on Downriver!"

Thinking about Capercaillie, with its various members involved in many diverse projects, you can't help wondering where the band goes from here. Karen's solo music is chameleon-like and eclectic; she's performing a contemporary set one minute, a classical performance the next -- she could head anywhere with such a voice. Ace flautist/piper Michael McGoldrick is going full steam ahead with his immensely exciting big band project -- watch out for his new release, Wired -- out on Oct. 10 -- and judge for yourself whether he isn't one of the most outrageously talented musicians working in the UK today. Shaw is a heavy influence behind both his wife's and McGoldrick's current output. Charlie McKerron is creating really exciting acoustic sounds with his fiddle-led Session A9 project, and the rest of the band members are much in demand by other musicians.

Shaw said in a recent Living Tradition Magazine article that he found it hard to fit everything in these days -- he's writing, producing, managing an independent record label, working on other projects with highly regarded musicians -- and all the individual Capercaillie band members seem equally busy. It leaves you wondering, but in the meantime we have this wealth of spin-off ventures to enjoy -- such as Saturday night's stylish and engaging performance by Karen Matheson and her fine ensemble of strings!

by Debbie Koritsas
8 October 2005

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