Sometimes music has the power to transport the listener to another time and place. The audience of a packed Glad Café witnessed such an occasion on the first night of The Aidan O’Rourke Quintet’s tour for their new album, Hotline. For just over an hour those fortunate enough to be in attendance were transported from the Southside of Glasgow to the shores of Cold War era Argyll. The album, commissioned as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, is inspired by TAT-1, the world’s first submarine transatlantic telephone cable located just outside of O’Rourke’s hometown of Oban. The music manages to reflect both the technology itself and its ability to bring together people living in different continents. The combination of the music, the archive interview footage and O’Rourke’s own tales of his childhood fascination with the cables creates a special atmosphere to accompany a wonderful performance.
Fiddler O’Rourke is best known for pushing the boundaries of folk music with the consistently excellent Lau, and more recently with Kan. Hotline, however, makes the rest of his work appear conservative by comparison. Ably backed by saxophonist Phil Bancroft, keyboard player Paul Harrison on keys, harpist Catriona McKay and James Goodwin on percussion, O’Rourke’s compositions blend traditional Scottish folk with avant-garde jazz to remarkable effect.
The set begins with Gallanach Bay. The song starts with archive footage of an interviewee explaining how the cables from TAT-1 run from Newfoundland in Canada under the Atlantic Ocean to Oban. Goodwin’s pulsing drums combined with a more-code like riff from piano and sax conjures up images of important messages being conveyed between continents.
The next song of the night, Clarenville, is named after the town in Newfoundland that is the site of the eastern end of the TAT-1. The song begins with a gentle, mournful violin solo. This is then softly repeated first by McKay on the harp and then by Harrison’s sax before gradually building into a powerful finish. Evoking thoughts of two quiet seaside towns becoming the centre of inter continental communication. Next up is, TAT-1, O’Rourke’s homage to the building outside Oban that houses the telephone cables. It begins with archive footage of a Canadian and a Scot discussing the McDougall clan over O’Rourke’s gently plucked fiddle before opening out into the most jazz-inspired song of the night.
The next two songs have a distinctly maritime feel to them. O’Rourke introduces HMS Monarch, by telling the audience that it is named after the ship that layed the cable between Scotland and Canada. This sets the scene for a song that gently ebbs and flows. There is time before the end for the performance of Sea, a song from O’Rourke’s earlier album An Tobar. A gentle harp solo builds into a stormy, almost abrasive middle section before winding back down to finish with the same harp solo.
The highlight of the show is undoubtedly the encore and title track of the album Hotline. O’Rourke introduces the song by describing how as a child he used to wonder about the potentially world-changing conversations between Washington and Moscow passing through Oban. The song starts with Russian and American talking simultaneously and captures a feeling of political posturing and hostility. It’s a fitting end to a remarkable performance.
Review by: Alfred Archer