A QUICK glance around the room and it was immediately apparent that a high per capita number of local fiddlers – including several of some renown – had taken their seats to enjoy a dazzling and at times hypnotic performance from RANT on Monday, Neil Riddell writes.
A cold and windy early February night is a tough assignment for any crowd-pulling artist, and while a turnout of 100 or so was a bit south of what a concert featuring the Reid sisters might have drawn in Lerwick a decade ago, that’s certainly no signpost of any dilution in musical quality.
Quite the opposite, in fact. RANT – a quartet that currently pairs Quarff-raised siblings Jenna and Bethany with Black Isle-reared musicians Lauren MacColl and Anna Massie – took to the Mareel stage replete with nine fiddles, some strikingly highly stationed microphones and four seriously stylish pairs of boots.
Their respective Shetland and Highlands influences melded together seamlessly throughout two 45-minute sets of highly sophisticated tunes, making for an immersive and invigorating evening.
The happy collision of those stylistic heritages was encapsulated early in the first half as MacColl and Massie’s duelling strathspey segued into Tom Anderson reel The Haa.
For a live show entirely reliant on a solitary instrument, each player wrung a fairly astonishing dynamic variety from their strings. Sets were peppered with dramatic flourishes and plaintive bow work that would give much of the classical cannon a run for its money.
RANT launched their third album The Portage at Celtic Connections in the same room, Mackintosh Queen’s Cross Church, where they’d recorded it last January.
The cover art for The Portage showcases the strikingly familiar brushwork of Shetland-based artist Ruth Brownlee, an absolute master at capturing the darkness and the light of the islands’ seas and shorelines.
The album takes its title from a Norse translation of Quarff – never far from the Reids’ minds – and references boats being carried across land between the Atlantic and the North Sea.
Massie, a recent addition to the group, injected her trademark wit into proceedings, proving as expressive between tunes as she was during them.
An anecdote about having written the theme tune for a hypothetical crime drama called CSii was one of several mirth-prompting tales she told. If there’s ever a tour billed as “an evening of stories with Anna Massie” I’m totally buying a ticket.
Her main take-away from the recording, other than the kirk’s grand sound and the occasional perils of noisy traffic, was: remember not to visit nearby café Jaconelli’s seeking a hot bevvy half an hour before closing time (“Two cups of tea, please?” “Naw, every’hing’s aff’!).
MacColl spoke of the band’s penchant for gathering around the kitchen table with a cuppa to delve through dusty old collections of tunes (“that’s about as rock’n’roll as this band gets, I’m afraid”).
That was apparent in the abundance of influences present, from reels to hornpipes and polkas and even an Icelandic choral piece.
On Now Westlin Winds, an instrumental reading of a Burns’ ode to nature popularised by Dick Gaughan’s interpretation, the strings compelled the listener to succumb to their gorgeous, lilting charms.
Closing the second set was the pairing of Sir Ronald McDonald’s Reel (from an 1800s Niel Gow collection) and Liz Carroll’s Johnny D’s, an elegant highlight from The Portage. The former tune, we were happily reassured, was “nothing to do with the creepy burger clown”.
Even these top-notch, seasoned Scottish folkies acknowledged that taking to the stage in front of numerous celebrated fiddle exponents brings with it a degree of trepidation.
But, after the quartet encored with the melancholic beauty of a wordless choral simply named Iceland, numerous exchanges as the audience drifted into the foyer seemed to be variations of “I’m not crying, you’re crying”. Seeing RANT had evidently been a truly moving experience for experts, beginners and non-fiddlers alike.
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