At Oran Mor on Saturday night (18th January) there was a double delight in store for visitors to Celtic Connections. With Ross Ainslie (Treacherous Orchestra, and so much more) offering a live outing for his hugely successful solo album Wide Open; and transatlantic innovators The Olllam finally bring their “neo acoustic Celtic post rock” to Scotland. A plumbing problem resulting in a soaked stage very nearly put paid to the evening’s show, but luckily all stops were pulled (or, rather, replaced) and we were spared a cancellation.
If anyone harboured a suspicion that Ross Ainslie might be trying to present Wide Open as an entirely solo effort; such fears were quickly allayed when he took to the stage along with a full crew and started the evening off with the the album’s opening toe-tapper – Rum. Soon the whole event took on an even more lively footing as Ross picked up his pipes and set about Jig Of Beer, a tune from his much missed mentor Gordon Duncan, with as much speed as delight.
It’s not all flashing fingers for Ross and friends, though. A new tune, Lullaby For Mel, on a plaintive low whistle tugged at the heart even more as Innes Watson added fiddle harmonies. Still not content to rely on Wide Open for content, Fly Higher (apologies if I mis-heard the title) is Ross’ premier outing as a song writer. Hamish Napier augmented his flawless whistle, flute and keyboard contributions by lending his voice to this upbeat and spirit building song.
When a piper of Ross’ calibre and reputation takes to the stage, though, there’s often only one thing on an audience’s mind – dancing. And, as expected, there was plenty scope for that. With James Mackenzie providing his usual staunch rhythm support, Ali Hutton on guitar and whistle, and John Sommerville’s fingers dancing on his accordion the sound was fluid perfection throughout. Ross and friends clearly relish being on stage together and the capacity crowd clearly relished the performance. And promoters take note: that set was bang on 45 minutes – how tight is that?
Wide Open (Samples)
Wide Open is released on 10th March via Great White Records. Order here
Next up, it was Ulster meets Detroit, for the much anticipated Scottish debut of The Olllam. John McSherry’s work with Tyler Duncan has been well documented on Folk Radio UK – and just about everywhere else that has an interest in progressive tradition-based music. The Olllam’s singular blend of funk, jazz and tradition certainly hits the spot with that audience.
McSherry, Duncan and Co took to the stage at Oran Mor with the minimum of fuss and the gentle acoustic guitar opening was almost lost among the chatter. Soon, however, the intricate and hypnotic combination of low whistles and Michael Shimmin’s gentle club beats was working its magic.
Other than a brief exchange of pleasantries, The Olllam seemed content to let the music speak for itself. Something of a departure from the norm at Celtic Connections. OK, with the diversity on offer, perhaps there’s no such thing as a norm; but a Celtic Connections set with the banter button set on minimum felt somewhat irregular. This is not a complaint, the exuberant audience were more than content to go along, happy to bear witness to something unique and innovative.
It was soon clear that McSherry and Denver’s immaculate whistle duets were being augmented by some arresting drum and bass combinations; Michael Shimmin and Joe Dart enjoying a near telepathic understanding of how to build up to those wilder, more freeform, invigorating passages. Theo Katzman’s guitar work is every bit as mellow and enchanting as the rhythm section is dynamic, and with some captivating, fathomless tunings. Tyler Duncan’s light touches on the Rhodes electric piano that peppered the album were ably provided by Woody Goss, who’s played extensively with Theo Katzman and Joe Dart.
As the evening progressed the interplay between McSherry and Duncan grew more and more intriguing, melody and harmony flitting around each other like a pair of nectar crazed butterflies and the rhythm section building crescendos that had the audience in raptures. It’s tempting to mourn the paucity of improvisation – John McSherry’s skill in this direction is the stuff of legend and a live encounter with the man almost invariably results in his explosive inventiveness. Given the over-riding jazz genes flowing through the music it seemed almost natural to expect it in live performance. But The Olllam are a new entity, with a tight, carefully crafted piece of work. No matter the skill levels of the individual protagonists, and that can’t be doubted, they still have to find their way with what they’ve created. They’ve tamed the beast of their own invention and brought it to an audience – there’s time for all that. For now, that audience can enjoy the result of their efforts and the elation that comes with live performance. Take my advice and do just that.
Live Review by: Neil McFadyen