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REVIEW: Cinder Well (with Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie)

By Kyle Walker

Cinder Well and Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie
Cinder Well and Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie

Velocity Café, Inverness


Please give me more gigs like this. At the very least, please give me more gigs in cafés.

On a Saturday night – Champions League final night no less – the quiet surroundings of Velocity, removed from the pub culture that defines and suffuses so many gigs in this city at the best of times, felt like a sanctuary. More importantly, it felt like a place I could get a decent coffee and a bit of cake (vegan chocolate tiffin – I’m a lot of fun at parties) to enjoy the music with.

And what music on offer – a night of folk music stripped back to its barest roots, without microphones or electronic amplification of any kind. It felt almost like a house show, the intimacy of 10-15 people sat – some having brought their own bottles, some with coffee – waiting to enjoy the sublime droning doom-laden folk of America’s Cinder Well, and the (mostly) Gaelic balladry of Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie.

Speaking as somebody whose already minimal amounts of Gaelic has rusted over the decade since learning it, there was still so much to enjoy about Brian and Fiona’s set. There’s something evocative about Gaelic songs that transcend language, particularly when they’re sung this well. These old traditional melodies and waulking songs performed in harmony to a café in which the only sound is my elbow slapping off my coffee saucer causing it to ricochet and wobble around my table (whoops, sorry everybody).

Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie
Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie

If there’s one word that ties these two acts together, it’s atmosphere – the songs of Brian and Fiona, aided by the added reverberation of Brian’s 12-string guitar and the natural acoustics of the café – suffuse the room with an ethereal and almost misty quality that’s unmistakably part of the culture of the Gàidhealtachd.

Cinder Well’s songs are much earthier – the feel of the material much heavier and doom-laden. As the group’s shruti box groans into life and the first song echoes around the room – a sang translation of the old Yiddish poem Mayn Rue Platz – the place falls silent, the only sounds in the room frontwoman Amelia Baker’s mournful, willowy voice and the box’s wailing drone until the violins kick in at the end.

It’s a stunning moment of music that doesn’t let up throughout the rest of the set. There’s a strange and profound sense of loss at the heart of the quartet, each song sending an unstoppable shiver down the spine of this silent and attentive audience. Accompanied by the metallic twang of Amelia’s resonator (a fickle beast that needed retuned every time between songs) and the deep, rumbling tones of a bow being slid across the strings of a double bass, Cinder Well’s own material – the likes of Through the Tendons and the quiet, aching Insulation of the Silence – seem to seep into the pores.

Every part of this night worked – the band, the support, the full acoustic performance and the venue just clicking together perfectly. As I left, the final song – a version of the traditional American folksong Katie Cruel – still leaving goosebumps on my skin, there was a chill biting the air and a thin mist before me.

It seemed more than apt, as if the music had escaped the confines of Velocity’s walls and infused the atmosphere around the city café.

What did you think? Comment below or tweet Kyle: @spp_kwalker

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