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‘Nae Regrets’ – Grit: A Tribute to Martyn Bennett

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (Thursday January 15th)

By • Feb 12th, 2015 • Category: gig reviews

So Celtic Connections opens its 22nd year with a somewhat unlikely one-off event.
In the early 90s one Martyn Bennett came to attention firstly as a virtuoso piper (no, wait readers, come back…) – with shades of Nigel Kennedy he appeared to some as the enfant terrible of Scottish traditional music (no, really, come back…) – dreadlocked and with an apparent desire to shake things up a bit, he apparently did do just that. Would have to say that back in the 90s BM would probably have stilettoed him for being an arse (although she did follow very closely the careers of other trad. fusionists Mouth Music, who followed a similar trajectory, but where are they now?) (well BM knows but…).

So Martyn tragically died very young, his last album release ‘Grit’ in 2003 now being cited as a landmark in Scottish music, and BM supposes that it is, certainly it’s a very good album, like Donna Summer via Fatboy Slim via Gaelic Psalms, if you will, and we certainly will tonight.

This event had quite a big build-up and BM is always suspicious of these. When you get the massed ranks of BBC Scotchland, international media press releases and the CC bandwagon, with nothing much else going on at this time of year, one would tend to be suspicious, but BM is just going to shut up about all this and listen to the music, so nuff said.

Having said that BM does remember back in the dim recesses of the mid-noughties there being a Bennett tribute event at CC, think featuring his wife/widow, at Old Fruitmarket, will have to look that one up readers…

Tonight the venue was looking pretty much sold out as BM took a seat (not at an event for quite some time, rests the heels but then you look to your right and left and realise, stuck with them all night, can’t go to the bar, can’t wander around and get a better view, and need to put up with the personal habits of neighbours, oh dear. And to my neighbours, stop $$$$ing singing under your breath, didn’t come to hear you, and other comments far more rude but glass houses etc, BM may have trod on someone’s feet as well, and not everyone appreciates the laddered fishnets look either, so apologies, it had been a long day…)

The man behind this gig (Greg Lawson, a violinist with the BBC SSO) also had a slightly Kennedy-ish air to him but BM could not question his dedication in bringing things together. He rightly said that given ‘Grit’ was recorded as a collage of samples (partly as Bennett was too weak from his illness to play his instruments), people were a bit scared of trying to replicate it live, and he thought that orchestrating it would bring out some of the complexity and variety of the tracks Bennett had laid down. Think he was right in general, but it was a big ask and took years to do.

CC director and Capercaille mastermind Donald Shaw came out first thing and said a few words about how many times he had asked if this project was going to happen. It eventually did.

The first half was interesting – a number of musicians (some of whom are in the ensemble piece later) who wanted to play tribute to Bennett came out, firstly Quebec Canadians ‘La Vente du Nord’, not really BM’s cuppa, got things started with some fiddle and accordion. Fiona Hunter (from Malinky) along with Mike Vass did a couple, then the always good and very unassuming Rab Noakes took the stage. He told a story about Gerry Rafferty trying to write lyrics for the 1971 album ‘Can I Have My Money Back’ and coming up with the word to “To each and every one”, later used by Bennett in a track which did not make the final cut of ‘Grit’ , but see later. Noakes’ guitar playing on this was amazing, the chords ringing out – now BM is not Rafferty’s biggest fan but this was quite something, and he warmed up the crowd by getting some communal singing going. Then Isobelle Ann Martin (possibly Stornoway’s answer to Adele) sung in the Gaelic accompanied by Shaw on piano, in the psalm style used several times by Bennett in ‘Grit’ and other work. Lastly a mixed group of “the next generation” again with Shaw on keys, played a couple of rousing tunes (one of them from Bennett’s ‘Bothy Culture’ album) on pipes, sax, double bass and tom toms, giving the audience something to “wheech” aboot – and that was part one.

Part 2 saw a huge group of players on the stage (around 80 comprising strings, woodwind, brass, pipes, percussion, guitar, pretty much the lot), and Lawson attempted to describe what he was trying to do with the orchestration before playing the eleven tracks (ten on original plus the ‘Paisley Spin’ extra track) in groups of two or three.

(Bennett btw went on record saying the album was split between songs of the Gael and the travelers, the two groups he felt embodied the “real” Scottish folk culture)

So let’s go through them:

1. ‘Move’ – Fiona Hunter took up the vocal originally sung by Shiela Stewart (who died last year) sampled by Bennett, a snippet from a Scottish traveller song and amazingly strident, backed by the orchestra trying to emulate the stuttering breakbeats and ambient washes of the original. A song of displacement and pride.
2. ‘Blackbird’ – This sounds like ‘State of Independence’ by Donna Summer, rewritten for a 90s rave, with great waves of sound, the massive bass and double bass battery (there were eight!) keeping the bass end up, and another ringing vocal.
3. ‘Chanter’ – probably the best known track partly due to the slightly plummy “practise with the chanter” sample, like an outtake from the end section of ‘Tubular Bells’, not sure whose voice this was (it was Bonzos man, och, forgot his name, on ‘Bells’, trivia neds). This has a higher BPM, a Gregorian chant replicated here by the Glasgow Uni Chapel Choir, and a weird and wonderful twisting vocal done tonight by piper Calum MacCrimmon. And lots of pipes, which drove the audience wild. It did feel quite cathartic after all the build-up and you could taste the enthusiasm of the 80+ people on stage, it was pretty special.
4. ‘Nae Regrets’ had another female singer (Annie Grace BM thinks) proclaim in a loud Dundee brogue about “No bidin’ wi’ her granny na mair” joined by Rab Noakes and Karen Mathieson on vocal duties.
5. ‘Liberation’ took things onto another more existential plain, with David Hayman providing a speechifying vocal from the back of the room about the “gates of righteousness”, sounding more like Alabama 3 than Teuchter 80+. He also slagged Lawson off for talking too much.
6. ‘Why’ – more contemplative, with a sublime vocal by Karen Mathieson, sampled dialogue starting the track, not really sure ever what this was about!
7. ‘Ale House’ had hints of “Remain in Light” era Talking Heads, found sounds, and perhaps the largest bass notes of the night, another vocal from Annie Grace and some suggestions of bawdiness, “bonnie wee lassie who never said no”, although with dark undercurrents as well.
8. ‘Wedding’ – very quiet piano, building into a sax solo, quite cinematic and reminded of the Creosote recent offering, some parallels with some of the techniques used here.
9. ‘Rant’ had been sort of previewed by Rab Noakes with his full rendition of the story of a condemned man who is unrepentant before death, mutates into a jazz breakdown with drums solos etc. Noakes even tries to replicate the split of the sample, very funny…
10. ‘Storyteller’ saw David Hayman come to centre stage and intone a long shaggy dog story with music, a bit unsettling as BM thinks it was meant to be – a fairly tale with graphic violence and a pointless ending…
11. ‘Paisley Spin’ takes a couple of lines of the Rafferty song and builds them into a moving refrain that Lawson has taken as a memoriam for Bennett – “To each and every one of you, I say goodbye, farewell, adieu”. It is moving, then the audience sings it, loudly then quietly, then more quietly, then Lawson takes it back, it is gone.

(and overall the orchestration did mainly work, the vocal performances were in many cases sublime and it does point the way for getting Bennett’s music out there, which is no bad thing)

The place then erupts with applause and relief, most of the audience now on their feet. After lots more clapping, Lawson answering cries of “encore” with “you’d better believe it, encore”, they lauch back into ‘Chanter’, now with all the guest vocalists, Hayman and everyone else on the stage. The audience, now truly loosened up, is now dancing in the aisles, young and old, fogey and hipster alike – this gig has certainly brought people together and Bennett, once the curse of the traditionalist, is now firmly in the accepted fold.

Whether that is as he would have wanted it is another story but not one for tonight…

And oh goodness, it was OMG like 10.35pm, so BM made her excuses and left.

One Response »

  1. Heads up for those with access to BBC Alba:

    Set your DVRs to record the Grit concert FRI 20/02 22:00 – 23:00