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REVIEW: Scottish musician Rachel Newton and Highland musician Lauren MacColl unveil Heal & Harrow live

By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: Heal & Harrow

Eden Court, Inverness

4 stars

The sound that Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton make together seeps into you and seems to tap into the memory of music our ancestors would have known and loved before us.

Heal & Harrow with Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton.
Heal & Harrow with Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton.

Though the music of the project Heal & Harrow itself is contemporary, it’s easy to imagine other times listening to the fiddle, harp and voices, singing and telling stories from generations ago.

And you feel lucky that it’s generations ago, in the case of this latest project.

The lives of people tried, tortured and often murdered as witches, lies at the heart of most of the 10 tracks of their latest album, also called Heal & Harrow.

But don’t imagine that the tracks conjure up violence and cruelty or are a hard listen. Instead, as they wanted to, the two musicians, have given voices, but in quite an abstract way, to some of the ‘witches’, whose stories they have come across.

And the experience of listening to the tracks opens up a well in your imagination you plunge down, trying to fathom what it was like to experience the feelings and thoughts of those accused of witchery – and punished.

It’s a journey for the listener and the music itself is a welcome companion full of subtlety and solace. It’s an album impossible to listen to just once, you’ll want to hit replay to enjoy again the thrill of the first listen, the assured musicianship and innovative choices in the production that create a mesmerising, immersive experience.

The two musicians played the whole Heal & Harrow live for the first time in front of an audience at Eden Court in the second half of the night.

In the first half, they became their own support and dipped back into some of their earlier collaborations to play an acoustic set from “different projects with each other” and individual work.

Rachel mentioned her album from 2019 The Changeling and said; “You can see where our interest in other-worldly stories came from.”

Lauren then took us back to one of the oldest melodies she knows, learning MacGregor Of RoRo from a manuscript dating from 1640, a tune from her album Landskein. Wryly she commented that she had never played the music from it live because Covid came along, but that she would love to get back to play it for people in the Abriachan Hall where the album had been recorded.

And there was no getting away from an awareness of the time and place we all found ourselves in.

As Rachel had commented at the start: “It’s just so lovely to be out gigging again.”

An Hour With Thee was a whimsical and pensive love song from Rachel’s album Here Is My Heart Take It, with memories atatched. Lauren recalled recording the song at Rachel’s grandparents’ but’n’ben in Wester Ross, as well as playing it at the Front Room Festival which led to being invited to play it on a live stream.

Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton.
Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton.

From Lauren’s The Seer – the touring of which she told the audience had been around the time the first ideas for Heal & Harrow had emerged. The Fairburn Calf was inspired by the Brahan Seer’s prediction that a calf would be born at the top of the Fairburn Tower – which happened.

“If only he could have told us about this Covid!” she grinned.

From Rachel’s 2012 album The Shadow Side, the chilling story of Green Willow, and the disconnect between a man who calls his woman ‘my love’ then drowns her regretfully with her child, we were led through a strange, unsettling world towards the witches of the second half, via the album The Changeling – with Lauren revealing the beliefs behind tracks The Eggshell Brewery/ Up The Lum which she and Rachel had played together in The Rachel Newton Trio.

After the interval, the audience found Lauren and her violin and viola set up to the left of the stage, Rachel and her instruments to the right, the expanse in between making space to focus on a big screen above them for the visuals created for Heal & Harrow by Alison Piper.

And from the first note, the album’s first track, Lilias, created a bewitching spell, the hairs on the back of your neck rising as the eerie, warped notes of possibly a harmonium gave way to fractured phrases on the fiddle that built into the melody.

Then the gentle sound of the solo harp drew you in to Rachel’s haunting, almost childlike vocal, singing words seemingly channelled from beyond the grave from Lilias Adie who died for being judged a witch in 1704: ‘You’ll find me on the shoreline, in the space between’.

Then she utters a poignant plea: “Meet me at the threshold, between the land and sea. If you find my bones again, take them back and swear that you’ll remember me?”

As the music brought the stories of a fictional witch (Da Dim, a reel), a witchpricker who was a woman pretending to be a man (Judge Not), or Margaret Aitken who turned accuser of witches, but was caught out and killed anyway (Behind Her Eyes), the stage set-up subtly suggested two sides, Lauren on the left, Rachel on the right, occasionally turning to face each other when not turned to the audience.

But the separation was almost an implied opposition that fitted with the idea of 'witch' and accuser.

Track Maire created the sound of a lament, starting with Rachel singing in Gaelic and quiet, unsettling scribbled harmonics from the fiddle.

A change of mood followed, a dancing almost African-influenced melody with a bell-like effect, creating the world of Nancy, who the musicians imagined as the inspiration for Robert Burns’ Cutty Sark.

The night ended with Eachlair. The musicians had explained on the album notes that Eachlair was included to contrast with the witch victims, giving voice to a cackling baddie – although I didn’t hear that in the music.

But the character’s words inspire sympathy – yet are as chilling as anything else we had heard in our night among the witches’ voices.

‘So I began again, far from the place they turned my gifts against me … I’ll bide my time until I rise again. I’ll find the cracks and break your heart open.’

Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton. Pictures: Elly Lucas
Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton. Pictures: Elly Lucas

Throughout the music, the big screen above the stage was alive with unsettling images – distracting too, for me, until you read the artist’s statement on the programme.

Abstract blobs raced around the screen, black and white unidentifiable textures, bleak snowy, hillsides and, late on, in second-last track Nancy, black and white footage from the past with all kinds of women doing all sorts of activities – dancing, spinning, tearing down a steep street on skates, waulking cloth or drawing diagrams with chalk on a blackboard. Women – or ‘witches’ as they might have been in earlier times – busy living their lives.

Both as an album and as a live performance, Heal & Harrow is a stunning creative achievement. But it is tantalising too in the way it has opened a door into a past and to a set of experiences you long to know more about. So, for me, Heal & Harrow promises and hints at other possibilities – a stage drama? a film documentary, perhaps?

The good news is that there will be a podcast, coming soon, Lauren and Rachel have already revealed that in the live launch programme. And the stories by Mairi Kidd that helped inspire them will be coming out as a book.

Find out more: healandharrow.com

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