The Mareel auditorium provided the perfect venue for the Karine Polwart Trio last Friday night, for what proved to be a very special night of music.
Since her first visit to Shetland back in 2002 with the Scottish folk band, Malinky, Karine has forged her own solo career and is quite rightly now regarded as one of Scotland’s finest singer/songwriters. As the audience made their way to their seats there was a sense of anticipation.
First we were treated to a short solo spot from Shetland singer/songwriter, Malachy Tallack.
This may have been Shetland audiences’ last chance to see Malachy perform for a while, as he explained he was moving to Glasgow a couple of days after the gig. It is perhaps apt then, with this life change planned, that Malachy chose to start his set with the self-penned song Leaving My Old Self Behind. This upbeat number was a great way to kick off the set and is one of the songs Malachy has worked on with his band line-up, Country & Northern.
The material he has written under this guise has allowed audiences to see a less serious side of Malachy, and this was again evident in his tribute to a certain alcoholic drink in Silver and Yellow Can of Dreams. For the reviewer, who is a fan of the melancholy, my pick of the set was the beautiful A Space recorded on his album From the Thorn. Lyrically, this song seemed in keeping with what was yet to come from the main act of the evening.
Following Malachy’s short set, Karine took straight to the stage, accompanied by her brother, Steven Polwart (on guitars and vocals), and Shetland’s own Inge Thomson (on accordion, vocals and various percussive instruments). What was clear from the outset is the tightness of this talented trio. There are no egos at play, with the three individuals focused only on the delivery of the songs. It is so easy to over-play, but every note and beat, sung or played, had been carefully planned, with appropriate space left to form the atmospheric backdrop to Karine’s perfectly crafted lyrics.
Over the course of the night we were treated to a selection of songs from Karine’s back catalogue, with more significant focus on material from her most recent album Traces. Karine’s voice has the ability to sound fragile and strong at the same time and shares equal billing with her songwriting skills. Her songs have their roots in traditional Scottish folk music, with a strong sense of time and place embedded in every line. Early on this was demonstrated in her tribute to her former neighbour, Molly Kirstensen, Salter’s Road.
Politically aware, Karine’s songs often champion the views of herself or others. With clever imagery in Cover Your Eyes she pays tribute to the homeowners who have resisted attempts to be moved from their homes on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire where Donald Trump chose to put a golf course. She also took the chance in her introduction to poke some fun at Mr Thump’s hairdo!
The highlight of the first half for me had to be Waterlily. Based on the book Cold Night Lullaby by Colin MacKay, the song tells the desperately sad story of his lover, Svetlana, and her two children being killed during the war in Bosnia. I know this incredibly powerful song brought many of the audience to tears and I have been left with the chorus running around my head for the days following the concert.
Many of Karine’s song do have serious themes, so it was great see her kick off the second half of the set with the light-hearted John C Clark (The Gasman Song), a tongue-in-cheek song about a love affair with, you’ve guessed it, a Gasman. There were a few chuckles as she performed this one on her own, before Steven and Inge re-joined her.
The youngest member of the audience on the night was an infant, complete with incredibly cute ear protectors. Having spotted this early on in the show, Karine chose to dedicate the song Rivers Run, written after the birth of her own son, to the baby. This is a lovely song, which manages not to fall into the trap of being overly sentimental.
Inge was then given the spotlight. She explained that she was going to do a song about boats. Usually at this point in the show she would talk at some length about this, but given it was Shetland she didn’t see the need. Inge’s voice is soft, with an almost childlike quality to it. This perfectly complements Karine’s voice, but was equally endearing on this song, on which she used vocal looping and a range of the instruments at her disposal to create a musical seascape for her solo voyage.
A few more songs from the trio, including some poetic, historical licence on Sorrowlessfield, and all too soon Karine was introducing the final number. While Steven and Inge set the scene musically, Karine explained the story behind King Of Birds, another of the tracks on her latest release. As we all pictured the wren taking his place as the King of Birds, the trio’s voices soared to a stunning conclusion which left the audience calling out for more.
We were obliged with one further song, Follow The Heron, a song Karine explained had been written on her first trip to Shetland. This was dedicated to Inge’s cousin, the late Lise Sinclair, who I know would have loved this show, and brought proceedings to a fitting end. Karine at times seems almost apologetic on stage for taking up the listener’s time, but this was a night not to be missed and the audience left with her beautiful songs ringing in their ears.