Every time LAU take to the stage in Scotland these days it feels like a momentous occasion, and last Thursday night at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall was no exception.
This double bill pitted the endlessly inventive trio alongside The Unthanks, another folk-ish band whose music defies easy categorisation, offering scope for the kind of ambitious collaboration the Celtic Connections festival specialises in.
Northumberland sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and their core backing group were bolstered by a four-piece string section, drums and trumpet, making for a graceful ambience, the music swirling sonorously around the room.
Among their set’s highlights were the sisters’ eerily enchanting harmonies on Magpie, taken from last year’s Mount the Air LP, and its “Devil, devil, I defy thee” mantra – delivered a cappella save for a lone drone in the background.
The Unthanks dipped into 19th century northern industrial history with their moving rendition of The Testimony of Patience Kershaw, based on the evidence a 17-year-old girl gave in 1842 about working down the mines: “Lady, sir, oh no not me; I should’ve been a boy instead”.
Offering a nod to northern English towns’ proud brass band heritage was Victoria Rule’s outstanding trumpet playing.
Despite some almost heavenly vocals, the tasteful orchestration didn’t fully exhilarate at times, but Mount the Air’s sprawling 10-minute title track reached a stirring climax amid foot-tapping and a quite brilliant trumpet solo.
The sisters then joined LAU to add harmonies to Kris Drever’s distinctive, soaring Scottish brogue on their first two numbers, Tiger Hill and First Homecoming.
Both songs are drawn from last year’s career-best LP The Bell That Never Rang, while instrumental Torsa from its predecessor Race the Loser provides a vehicle for one of Aidan O’Rourke’s very finest fiddle motifs.
Drever’s hymn to generations of immigrants, Ghosts, has been a staple of LAU’s set for many years and it seems more prescient than ever in today’s toxic political climate. It’s a fitting song, too, for a festival whose modus operandi is all about breaking down cultural barriers between borders at a time when too many European political leaders seem hell-bent on erecting them.
There was time for a cheeky gibe in the direction of Paul Daniels from accordionist (and wizard of all the gadgets) Martin Green, who met the magician once and “he didn’t exceed my expectations”.
The centre-piece of the set saw LAU tackle 17-minute masterpiece The Bell That Never Rang with a little help from their silhouetted friends, London’s Elysian Quartet, performing behind the curtain bathed in warm, hazy atmospheric light.
When the drama and discord of its adventurous instrumental passages gave way to the pastoral calm of Drever’s voice intoning “You pulled me from the river with a ring in my mouth”, it sent tingles up the spine. Those same tingles resurfaced shortly after with the massed choral refrain: “Nobody knows when you’ll go, and no one thinks to tell you”.
It’s easy to run out of superlatives when reflecting on LAU’s achievements. But perhaps their greatest success has been in demonstrating that challenging need not mean inaccessible when it comes to music of this calibre.
Come the encore, the trio suddenly found themselves morphing into a 13-piece as The Unthanks trickled back on stage and a bucolic soundscape unfurled, reprising Mount the Air, and rounded off the night in glorious fashion to a richly deserved standing ovation for all involved. It proved to be another triumph of programming from festival director Donald Shaw and his team.
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (28.01.16)
Review by: Neil Riddell