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Review of Blas Festival's Gruth is Uachdar live performance in Inverness Cathedral

By Margaret Chrystall

REVIEW: Gruth is Uachdar

Blas Festival, Inverness Cathedral

4 stars

There was a sense of uncertainty over Gruth is Uachdar as the musicians who created the music for the TV series brought it to life live for the first time in front of an audience in Inverness Cathedral as the finale to this year’s Blas Festival.

The Gruth is Uachdar line-up.
The Gruth is Uachdar line-up.

Was it just adding a little light-hearted edge to ramp up the drama, that apparent slight trepidation on the part of Donald Shaw, that he and Charlie McKerron and their chosen musicians would be up to the task, as he introduced many of the tracks that made up the soundtrack to the TV series of Finlay J MacDonald’s classic trilogy about growing up on Harris, Gruth is Uachdar or Crowdie And Cream.

But there was no danger, there was nothing to fear.

Literally in the hands of this group of elite musicians, what could go wrong? Everyone was having fun when they shared the music with us.

Yes, occasionally, some of the fastest reels might have seemed frighteningly fast from the inside, fingers flying over accordion keys or darting across fiddle strings, maybe a cloud of resin rising from the bridge.

But for those of us on the outside of that busy engine of sound, sitting in the cathedral’s packed pews being treated to this music of many moods, pure exhilaration was most often the effect of the journey back to explore this soundtrack created 20 years ago.

The evening was opened by Donald and Charlie's Capercaillie bandmate, singer Karen Matheson grinning she was "the wee warm-up".

After Lassie Wi’ The Lint White Locks, accompanied by Donald on piano, Karen paid tribute to the late much-loved Gaelic singer Ishbel MacAskill, saying she would sing An Aitearachd Ard (The Surge Of The Sea) and a favourite version by Ishbel.

Karen Matheson opened the night.
Karen Matheson opened the night.

After a couple more Gaelic songs, including Seinnam Cliu Nam Fear Ur, Karen treated us to an Irish song by poet and writer Brendan Graham, then closed her set with Ae Fond Kiss, remembering singing the Burns classic at the Commonwealth Games, when meeting Kylie Minogue had been a highlight.

After a short break, the title theme The 7th Day opened the main set of Gruth is Uachdar.

Donald had introduced it saying he was delighted to be playing through the tunes from 20 years ago, promising some dramatic moments.

“So we will see how we get on!” he smiled.

Initially, the other musicians taking part with him and Charlie were multi-instrumentalist Tim Eadie, Ross Ainslie on whistles and the pipes, Ali Hutton on guitar and bodhran and cellist Alice Allen.

Successfully completing the beautiful 7th Day theme, Donald grinned: “Thanks very much – and good night!”

Luckily, just a joke.

The Shepherdess from Skye followed which properly introduced Ross Ainslie and then the first of the lively reels that raised our expectations and prepared us for the blood-quickening sets that would follow.

Most of the tracks saw a picture go up on the screen above the musicians from the TV series.

But Donald warned: “We’ve got pictures from the original series off the laptop. I hope it doesn’t flash up pictures of Tim in his swimming trunks!”

Donald said that the stories were more about community than anything else and the great characters included in the books, before introducing Charlie McKerron’s music for the track All Slicked Up. Contrasting reels, The Haircream Reel followed Finlay’s Theme, before another piece by Charlie, The Orange Beach.

Donald then introduced local fiddlers Kate Macleod and Jamie Clark for The Silver Whistle and Machair At Dawn, Ross moving on to the bagpipes.

“That’s woken you up!” grinned Donald.

The musicians taking a bow – from left – Ross Ainslie, Tim Eadie, Ali Hutton, Alice Allen, Charlie McKerron, Kate Macleod and Jamie Clark [Donald Shaw had just left the stage].
The musicians taking a bow – from left – Ross Ainslie, Tim Eadie, Ali Hutton, Alice Allen, Charlie McKerron, Kate Macleod and Jamie Clark [Donald Shaw had just left the stage].

From there it all began to pass too soon – Karen Matheson was persuaded to “jump up” again to sing a Gaelic psalm and traditional Gaelic song, at first just accompanied by Donald’s accordion, gradually all the instruments coming in, somehow emphasising the sobbing quality of the vocal.

The credit “feet” on the original CD, was explained by a story from Donald, who talked about a picture from the original recordings made while Celtic Connections was on in 2001. He remembered Michael Bordeleau formerly of Canadian folk band La Bottine Souriante, taking part not having had much – any? – sleep, and being asked to contribute the sound of his feet [in the art of podorhythmie tapping feet with special shoes on] “once we had found the right piece of wood”.

Then it was thanks to Blas from Donald for “getting us up to play”, Charlie and Donald surely having proved to themselves that it worked, Charlie telling the audience that without the brilliant work of this man (Donald), the project would never have happened.

The CD released in 2002
The CD released in 2002

Apart from a programme, which might have been useful for checking individual tune titles in sets – but not something the ceilidh tradition of spontaneity really demands – I suppose you could argue there was one thing missing, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra who had played on the original recording. But the thought made you wonder if adding an orchestra and maybe sharing it some time with a Celtic Connections audience might not be a great idea!

Throughout, the coloured lights playing across Inverness cathedral’s pillars and carvings courtesy of Limelight Sound And Lighting, I think, added a lovely extra dimension to the performance.

And the climax of the night was a final set of reels ending with the High Road To Linton and played at the supersonic speed the night had taught us to crave! MC

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