Capercaillie started as a group of teenage friends at Oban High School, emerging from the rich musical soil of the west of Scotland in the early 1980s. Founder members Donald Shaw (accordion and keyboards) and Karen Matheson (vocals) have been the core of the band throughout the last 30 years. In producing this album, At The Heart Of It All, to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary, they had an aim which Shaw explained, “When we started out it was all about the song, or all about the tune, first and last, and while I hope we’ve never lost sight of that, in making this new album, I really do feel we’ve got right back to the heart of it.”
Anyone unfamiliar with Capercaillie’s output over the last 30 years might reasonably ask where the band had journeyed to, that made necessary such an aim. Geographically, their journey has been global, “from the Brazilian rain forest to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon”, as they are fond of putting it. Musically, they have incorporated the numerous influences collected on their travels and are widely credited with a leading role in establishing Scottish traditional music’s place on the world music stage. In doing so they have brought into their sound some decidedly non-traditional instruments from horn sections to synthesisers and contemporary arrangements that have attracted labels such as “pop” and “funk”. It is against this background that At The Heart Of It All is presented as, at least a partial, return to the band’s roots.
This doesn’t mean that all non-traditional aspects have been stripped from the music, far from it, as the first track beautifully demonstrates. It opens with jazz maestro Tommy Smith’s tenor sax elaborating a melody that is rapidly taken over by Karen Matheson’s Gaelic vocals, with the sax initially extending each melody line. The sax slips away leaving Karen’s vocal lines to alternate with refrains from chorus voices. Instrumentals between verses allow first the sax to return followed by Charlie McKerron’s fiddle and Michael McGoldrick’s flute, all three interweaving to close the track. Rarely has an opening track drawn me so completely and effortlessly into the music.
The track is a typical Gaelic work song, S’Och A’ Dhomhnaill Oig Ghaolaich, a waulking song, used during the tweed weaving process when groups of women would ‘waulk’, or beat, the newly woven cloth to soften it. As in many other work songs, the rhythm helps the work group keep in time requiring a leader to set the tempo and the group to follow with the refrain.
Of the eleven tracks on the album just three are instrumental sets and all but one of the eight songs have Gaelic lyrics, mostly traditional. Choosing the traditional songs was very much part of returning to their roots, using Karen’s family repertoire (her mother and grandmother had Gaelic as their first language), old field recordings and the recently digitised archive of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University. The one English language song is the title track of the album and the lyrics bring out the band’s view on the importance of song and music to life and living, “At the heart of it all… is a song for the common man… At the heart of it all is a story to be told”. This is sung as a duet shared by Karen and Kris Drever with the instrumental arrangement primarily featuring Michael McGoldrick’s uillean pipes.
Producing this album has involved many more artists than the eight current members of the band. There are guest vocalists and musicians present on virtually every track. In addition to the two guests mentioned already, Karen’s vocals are shared with four outstanding Gaelic singers of the new folk generation, Julie Fowlis, Kathleen MacInnes, Sineag MacIntyre and, on the gently lyrical Fainne An Dochais (Ring of Hope), the beautifully contrasting deeper tones of Darren MacLean. The instrumental line-up is variously enhanced by the banjo of Gerry O’Connor, to great effect on The Jura Wedding Reels, uillean piper Jarlath Henderson, fiddler Aidan O’Rourke of Lau and percussion from Shooglenifty’s James MacKintosh. Yet more guests join in on Abu Chuibhl’ (Spinning Song) where the trumpet of Ryan Quigley, the sax of Paul Towndrow and the trombone of Michael Owers provide a horns section that would give Little Feat’s Tower of Power a run for their money.
Such a top notch array of guests is testament to the high regard in which the members of Capercaillie are held by the younger folk musicians who have grown up during the course of the band’s career. But an even greater sense of their reputations comes from looking at the vast array of other activities in which they engage. These range from Donald Shaw’s major commitment as artistic director of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, Michael McGoldrick’s worldwide touring with Mark Knopfler’s band, Donald Shaw, Charlie McKerron and Manus Lunny being separately responsible for the scores of films and TV programmes, the list goes on…
These are seriously in demand musicians but still they find time to come together as Capercaillie. As Donald Shaw has said, “The primary thing that keeps us going is that we’re all really good mates, and when we get together we have a great time.” For this album, that also meant consciously going back to the style of working out songs and tunes that they had at the very beginning, “just sitting in a room together playing bits of tunes, trying different ideas out, rather than deciding on the groove and the backline then fitting everything else around that”. The old approach has produced a collection of songs and tunes that has immediate appeal but which has a depth and a quality that ensures the pleasure grows with each listen.
Having got together to produce the album, they’re able to stay together to tour over this summer with a string of festival appearances, including Tiree on Saturday July 20th, which is where I’ll be heading as soon as I finish this review.
As to be expected, the Capercaillie line up has seen numerous changes over the years but has been consistent for over 10 years now. They are –
Karen Matheson – Vocal
Donald Shaw – Accordion and Keyboards
Charlie McKerron – Fiddle
Manus Lunny – Guitar and Bouzouki
Ewen Vernal – Bass
Michael McGoldrick – Flute, Whistles and Uillean Pipes
David Robertson – Percussion
Che Beresford – Drums
Review by: Johnny Whalley
At The Heart Of It All is released on August 12th via Vertical Records.
Capercaillie gigs 2013
17 July – Karen with Donald at Loch Lomond Sealife Centre
19 July – Heb Celt Festival, Stornoway
20 July – Tiree Music Festival
28 July – 5pm Cambridge Folk Festival
4 August – Barnsley, Madfest Festival
5 August – Edinburgh Fringe
7 August – France, Festival Interceltique de Lorient
8 August – Sidmouth Festival
9 August – Broadstairs Folk Week
10 August – Festival du Chant de Marin, Paimpol, France
22 August – Festival Les Traversées de Tatihou, France
26 August – Shrewsbury Folk Festival
14 September – Inverness, Eden Court, Blas Festival
22 September – Italy, Busto Arsizio, Busto Folk Festival
10 November – Edinburgh, Usher Hall
12 November – Aberdeen, Music Hall
13 November – Perth, Concert Hall
14 November – Gateshead, The Sage
15 November – York, Barbican
16 November – New Brighton, The Floral Pavilion
26 November – Kendal, Brewery Arts Centre
29 November – London, Queen Elizabeth Hall
30 November – Birmingham, Town Hall
1 December – Manchester, Academy