Valhalla project combines musical cultures in a heavenly way

The traditional music of Shetland and Ireland have always made easy bedfellows.

Both rely heavily on the fiddle, both are full of energy and verve, and in moments of quiet both are beautiful and encourage moments of introspection.

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Beoga’s Eamon Murray on bodhrán and vocalist Niamh Dunne. Photo: Dave Donaldson

At Mareel on Saturday the audience gathered in the auditorium to witness a special event. Grammy nominated Beoga and Shetland favourites Chris Stout and Catriona McKay brought to the isles their new “suite” of music, titled Valhalla.

Before playing this collaborative composition both acts gave the crowd a taste of their individual sounds.

Beoga were first to step up to the plate. The Irish five-piece consists of Damian McKee on accordion, Seán Óg Graham on guitar and accordion, Liam Bradley on piano, Eamon Murray on bodhrán and Niamh Dunne on vocals and fiddle.

With four albums (including the wonderfully named how to tune a fish), a fifth due out this year and numerous awards and nominations under their belt it was obvious to all in attendance why Beoga are a steadily rising star, making a considerable name for themselves in the Irish music scene and beyond. The Wall Street Journal called Beoga, “the most exciting traditional band to emerge from Ireland this century” – this is not hyperbole.

The sparring accordions of McKee and Graham rise to the fore in most sets, while the bodhrán playing of Murray and the piano of Bradley ably underpin the whole set-up. Dunne gave a blistering performance on the fiddle and during the songs her voice is stunning.

The highlight of their opening performance was a rendition of The Bonnie Ship the Diamond – a song about a whaling ship heading off to Greenland in an effort to make a fortune in whale oil – where the beautiful vocals of Dunne cut through the auditorium and sent a chill down the spine. McKee’s accordion was likewise spectacular.

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Damian McKee. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Another bright spot of the performance was a mid-set display of musical brilliance from Murray who performed a spellbinding bodhrán solo. Pianist Bradley told the audience they were in for a treat, explaining that Murray was a four times all-Ireland bodhrán champion, before jokingly remarking that the event was “organised by his mum”.

His ability to get so many sounds from so small an instrument was truly mesmerising. More impressive still was how effortless it seemed. When halfway through the set one member of the audience jumped the gun with early applause Murray lent into the microphone and joked “thanks Mum” without missing a beat.

In fact this was a theme of the whole performance. Beoga are a band who not only delight with their musical ability but also with their instantly likeable personality and jokey self-deprecating remarks. The jokes between members are equally endearing. In one particularly humorous moment Murray poked fun at Graham whose northern lights inspired tune Aurora was originally called Northern Skies. A name which to Murray’s mind sounds like a title from a musician “aged nine and a half”.

Aurora was likely the weakest track of the opening set, and this speaks to the band’s quality because despite being a sleepy little track to begin with it evolves into an infectious tune whose hook is a true earworm, bound to ring around your head for days to come.

Following a short interval Shetland favourites Chris Stout and Catriona McKay took to the stage. They played a short set, composed of five sets of tunes.

Stout’s fiddle was, as ever, a blistering tour de force. McKay, was likewise deft on the harp from which she elicits a dreamy sound, which at times gives way to powerful strums.

A recurring theme of the performance was Stout’s cascading fiddle. His talent is as awe-inspiring as it is undeniable, and when their short set came to an end it felt like it was over too soon.

White Nights was a particular stand-out in a set full of raw energy and though one hymn-like composition in the middle of the set seemed to overstay its welcome a little – choosing to fade shortly after a powerful fiddle crescendo which felt like the more appropriate ending – this is a minor quibble in an otherwise enthralling performance.

Once their set as a partnership was over Stout and McKay welcomed Beoga to the stage once again to perform their Valhalla “suite” of music. Valhalla is the fruit of a five-day labour, where both bands were commissioned by the Metropolitan Arts Centre (the MAC) in Belfast to compose music which married the links between the music of Shetland and the music of Ireland.

Valhalla is composed of two sets of roughly 10-minutes each which draws influences from across the Celtic music spectrum. It is, in Murray’s trademark self-deprecating words, a composition which has received “a rave review”.

The “suite” starts with a slow, emotionally charged fiddle tune which quickly gives way to a fast foot-tapper which sees the whole cast of instruments become involved. It is hard to believe that the seven man performance on stage was the result of just five days of work plus a short tour of Northern Ireland.

Before entering the auditorium, one could be forgiven for expecting the performance to have a slight jam like quality – but after seeing how tight the band, and how nuanced the music, is nobody could be left feeling that way. It was a true testament to the skill of all the performers on stage how the quality of their performance belied the short quantity of time they had had to practise together.

The second part of the performance saw Dunne on vocals again. This time she performed a centuries old Norn song. The opener of this set had a spooky, ethereal quality which conjured up in the mind’s eye images of boats on misty waters. As with the previous half of the performance this slow opener gave way to a more energetic piece of music which closed out the performance.

Rapturous applause rang through the auditorium after the performance and the crowd demanded the two bands come back to the stage for an encore. Again, as with the bumper two hours of music which went before, there was a true energy and enthusiasm to the performance.

This was a night which saw a special partnership of seven musicians truly at the top of their game.


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