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Fiona Hunter – Glad Café, Glasgow
25 October 2013

by Neil McFadyen

in Live

Fiona Hunter is a Scottish singer / cellist with a rich, expressive voice and a devotion to traditional song. Her musical career has seen her graduate from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama, take on an internship at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, work with Perthshire tradition-bearers the Stewart family and spend 10 years as lead vocalist with Malinky. Fiona’s now looking forward to the release of her first solo album next March. Visitors to Glasgow’s Glad Cafe on Friday were treated to a preview of the delights the album holds in store before Fiona and the band head to Cardiff for a performance at the world music expo, WOMEX.

The Glad Cafe enjoys a growing reputation in Glasgow as a cafe/arts venue showcasing up and coming musicians and an intimate performance space for established artists. The friendly atmosphere was well suited to this particular event, with almost everyone in the audience on first name terms.

Fiona was joined on-stage by innovative fiddler Mike Vass, whose Decemberwell and String Theory albums have been widely acclaimed. Fiona and Mike have played as a duo for some time and Mike has produced the forthcoming album. To make the night that extra bit special, Fiona was also joined by the full band that support her on the album – talented Arran fiddler Gillian Frame (Back Of The Moon), multi-instrumentalist Innes Watson (Lori Watson and Rule of Three, Ross Ainsley & Jarlath Henderson) and renowned jazz bass player Euan Burton.

Robert Tannahill’s Braes o’ Gleniffer is an excellent way to open an evening of Scottish song. This gently-lilting melody was given a new twist with the inclusion of Fiona’s cello (a traditional accompaniment to fiddle music in Scotland) and Mike Vass on tenor guitar. Modern song writting with the tradition in mind was also given an airing, in the form of Ewan McVicar’s Shift and Spin; a mill-worker’s day-dream among the endless noise of machinery provides the evening’s first sing-along.

What night of traditional song would be complete without a murder ballad? The Cruel Mother exists in many forms, and the dark tale in the Lucy Stewart version was delivered in a haunting string quintet setting. Three fiddles, bass and cello conspired with Fiona’s rich vocals to create the perfect, dramatic setting for this tale. The mood soon lightened again with an introduction to Fiona’s new shoes (you had to be there), a fine rendition of The Laird o’ Drum and a favourite from Fiona’s Malinky songbook, Young Emslie. The first set closed with a popular toe-tapper, The Weary Pund – a typically comic tale of matrimonial strife from the pen of Robert Burns.

Bolstered by an audience that were as keen to show their appreciation as they were to join in, Fiona and the band started the second set confidently. An a capella opening to The Bleacher Lass o’ Kelvinhaugh led, via a short and wonderful jig, to I Aince Had a Lass, the archetypal false bride song, learned directly from Elizabeth Stewart.

The importance of more modern sources of traditional song was also highlighted, with Andy Hunter’s Ye Heilan’ Chields sending out a poignantly relevant anti-war message. Followed by an unaccompanied rendition of MacCrimmon’s Lament; this marked the kind of sombre period that takes skill and judgement to pull off properly. The combination of plaintive fiddle and atmospheric shruti box in Ye Heilan’ Chields, and the heart-rending lyrics of MacCrimmon’s Lament are testament to Fiona’s skill as a performer and Mike’s as arranger.

No more, no more, no more forever / In war and peace shall return MacCrimmon / No more, no more, no more forever / Shall love or gold bring back MacCrimmon

Before the band left the stage, the audience were in fine voice for Davey Steel’s Heave Ya Ho, and the warm reception encouraged them back for the rousing Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow; the tale of a ploughboy’s downfall in the big city.

Fiona Hunter’s album preview in Glasgow worked perfectly on so many levels. The songs were delivered with skill and emotion, and with Fiona’s love for traditional Scottish song clearly evident. The arrangements Mike and Fiona have developed seem to effortlessly embrace those traditions but at the same time imbibe them with a refreshing, contemporary flavour. And the rare chance to hear these songs with the full backing of the band that made such an accomplished contribution to the album itself was one that I’m sure every member of the audience welcomed. Fiona and Mike will be touring together next spring, to coincide with the release of Fiona’s solo album. Judging by the quality of tonight’s performance in Glasgow, it’s a release that should be keenly anticipated.