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Reviews / Young Trad Showcase: ‘you should have been there to hear it’

All four musicians, plus Mark Maguire on bodhran, shared the stage at the end of the concert (left to right): Amy Laurenson, Ali Levack, Erin Rae, Michael Biggins and Mark Maguire. Photo: Caroline Mckenzie.

WHEN I first got a copy of this year’s festival programme, I put a galaxy of asterisks beside the Young Trad Showcase on Saturday afternoon at Mareel, writes Caroline McKenzie.

This was a one-off, bringing the last four winners of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year together on stage: and it had the potential to be very special indeed.

Master of Ceremonies for the afternoon was ‘Mr Hands Up for Trad’ himself, Simon Thoumire who, for more than 20 years, has been the driving force behind the organisation which does so much to promote traditional music and culture from across the length and breadth of Scotland.

Simon had turned to Artificial Intelligence and the ChatGPT chatbot (anyone over 40, ask a young person!) to compose an opening poem for the occasion.  I have to say that some of the rhyming would have made even William Topaz McGonagall blush, so our national poets have nothing to fear from AI – at least for the moment.

First on stage was the 2020 award winner Ali Levack a whistle player and piper extraordinaire  from Dingwall – surely the hardest working musician this festival.  I’d seen him with his trio Project Smok in the Legion concert on Friday afternoon and, 12 hours later, he was still giving it his all in the club, performing with Valtos.

Though he confessed to feeling “a wee bit broken”, he still managed to show us exactly why he had earned that Young Trad Musician title.

Backed by the other two thirds of Project Smok, Ewen Baird on bodhran and Pablo Lafuente on guitar, Ali’s whistle-playing is absolutely dazzling, whether it’s the achingly-beautiful tune written for Ali by his late grandfather, or a set of, as yet-unnamed, new reels.

It was then the turn of the 2021 winner, pianist and accordion player Michael Biggins from Newcastle. Michael had won the competition in lockdown year, when it was held in BBC Scotland’s Pacific Quay building, with no live audience to cheer him on.

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If there had been one, it would have undoubtedly raised the roof – what a player! I was fervently hoping he would treat us to the set he played during his award-winning performance, and my wish was granted: The Silver Spire, Ornette’s Trip to Belfast and Princess Beatrice delivered in breathtaking style on Mareel’s grand piano, which, until shorty before the performance, had been undergoing some emergency repairs.

Michael stayed on stage to accompany the next performer – last year’s Trad Musician champion, fiddler Eryn Rae from Jedburgh. She’s a former pupil of Shetland’s Catriona MacDonald, and her tutor’s influence is apparent in Eryn’s love of Shetland tunes, opening with Maggie O’Ham and the Foula Reel, played in the AEAE tuning, and closing with a cracking set of reels. By way of contrast, she chose the haunting slow air Night In That Land by the late Johnny Cunningham. For me, there’s always a ‘moved to tears by the music’ moment at a folk festival, and this was it.

When the Festival Committee first mooted the idea of a concert showcasing the last four winners of the Young Trad competition, they had no idea who the fourth performer – the 2023 winner – would be. So, they must have been whooping with delight when Shetland’s own Amy Laurenson carried off the trophy back in February.

Amy took her place at the grand piano, backed by Lea Larsen on bodhan and Miguel Girão on guitar, to delight us with a Swedish wedding tune, followed by a cracking set of reels. How fantastic to see the piano as the main instrument, carrying the melody, and played with such dexterity by Amy.

After a short break, all four musicians returned, joined by Mark Maguire on bodhran, with Amy moving to upright piano, and Michael picking up the accordion. What a privilege to be in the audience to witness them playing together for the first time, watching all those sets of nimble fingers dance through a set of jigs.

The boys left the stage to Amy and Eryn for a delightful fiddle/piano duet before Amy and Michael took their places at the two acoustic pianos and knocked it out of the park with a couple of hornpipes.

I do believe I heard the sound of a couple of hundred jaws dropping in the capacity Mareel audience, as the two pianists wove their way through the tunes in a duet that will surely turn out to be one of the ‘you should have been there to hear it’ moments of the whole weekend.

The full ensemble returned to the stage to close the concert with a final set of reels – a further reminder of the prodigious talent nurtured by the annual Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition, which has now been running for more than two decades.

All four are hugely accomplished musicians, and to have heard them on the same stage, both collectively and individually, was very special indeed.

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