Photography: Olivia Hayes

JOHN McCUSKER

Philharmonic Music Room

JOHN McCUSKER is nothing if not prolific, nothing if not collaborative, and nothing if not well connected. As he takes the stage in the Philharmonic Music Room, and introduces himself with his characteristic soft Caledonian charm, he surrounds himself with a band of sublime folk talent and experience. To his immediate left is the backbone of much of McCusker’s work, his close friend and 35-year musical comrade Andy Cutting. The melodeon player is fresh from the Radio 2 Folk Awards, where he won the coveted Musician Of The Year award for the third time. As well as Innes White on guitar and mandolin and Toby Shaer on violin, flutes and whistles, McCusker is joined by Adam Holmes, here to add depth and colour with his rich, warm, burned-at-the-edges vocals, and to provide valuable dynamic spaces in the pieces, courtesy of his refined and stripped-bare guitar work.

As with all great folk artists, McCusker is a serial collaborator, and with collaboration comes spontaneity and innovation. Each performance brings something new, something different: traditional stories are retold with new vision and new interpretation. As unassuming and composed as McCusker comes across, it is abundantly clear who is the guide here. The affinity between him and his fellow musicians is obvious to all, as he deftly communicates changes, gently guiding the dynamic with a nod of the head, a smile, or the genteel flick of a viola bow. As a producer of much renown, the flow of the jigs and reels, the seamless leaps between pieces, and the sweeping lifts and falls are all central to this impressive performance, and his years of experience and the breadth of sheer musicality onstage here breathe life into this striking collection of work.

Here in support of his new album, Hello Goodbye, his first solo album in 13 years, and itself a celebration of his 25 years in the business, McCusker sees to it that the evening revolves largely around traditional and contemporary pieces of his and Holmes’ solo material. These are songs that evoke the spirits of their histories, and speak so well of their origins. The lilting, almost ambient, lament of the intro to Calendar Boys gives itself over to an irresistible, urgent folk stomp, where two jigs melt together and are driven by Cutting’s melodeon and the expressive vigour of John McCusker’s stamping foot. The interwoven strings of McCusker and Innes on this and the many jigs are the absolute highlight, as they hold the centre ground for much of the set.

The beauty and melancholic, the drifting subtlety such as is found in songs like Milk Carton Kids add an important element to this commanding, engaging performance, which in turn is highlighted by John McCusker’s dry, almost whispered wit and charm as he goes about setting the scene for his tale. These quieter moments give Adam Holmes the opportunity to join the band on occasion. Holmes is a real find, bringing as he does a John Martyn-style tranquillity to the vocal lines of his and McCusker’s work, and the warmth of his semi-acoustic on songs such as Cutting Loose and the scorched-earth, sun-blushed gospel blues of drinking song Mother Oak, or the slender, plaintive beauty of Aviemore and the perfectly chosen final song tonight, Oh My God. The story goes that McCusker was listening to the radio as he drove through the Highlands, and Holmes came on. He pulled over to make a note of Holmes’ name. I’m glad he did, just as much as I am grateful he wasn’t listening to another channel at that moment. Proof, if proof were needed (which of course, it isn’t), of McCusker’s ear, the key to this most impressive of careers. A class in folk, this was.

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