Graeme Thomson

Dense, melancholic, hypnotic: Brighde Chaimbeul, at Summerhall, reviewed

Plus: songs full of melody, dry humour and quiet grief, courtesy of Kathryn Williams & Withered Hand

Brighde Chaimbeul performing at the SXSW Festival 2023. Photo: Rick Kern / FilmMagic

The hip end of the folk spectrum is in rude health right now. Dublin’s mighty Lankum lead the way, but plenty of other interesting artists are following in their wake, Brighde Chaimbeul among them.

If a Gaelic-speaking trad musician from Skye reinterpreting Philip Glass for the small pipes sounds like your thing – and why on earth wouldn’t it? – then Chaimbeul is worthy of exploration. At 17 she won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award. Her 2019 debut, The Reeling, released via Rough Trade, cross-pollinated traditional with experimental electronic music. More recently, and still in her early twenties, she has collaborated with American avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson on the album Carry Them With Us.

One song is about a woman whose lover won’t marry her because she doesn’t have enough cows

Think of the small pipes as slightly better behaved bagpipes – operated not by breath but by bellows placed under the arm, with the sound a few degrees sweeter as a result. But let’s not get carried away. This remains an attritional instrument, and the hour I spent in the company of Chaimbeul’s music was dense, melancholic and hypnotic. It helped that the Old Lab was a hot black box, dry ice rolling off the stage, the atmospheric controls firmly set to misty island menace.

In the eye of the storm, Chaimbeul sat cradling the pipes, an array of pedals and effects-boxes at her feet and on the table beside her. From these, she summoned the sound of primal drums, bass notes, layers and loops. From the chanter, she coaxed an endless flow of melody, mostly mournful. At times she bent the notes, twisting them into discordant, eerie alarms. Occasionally, as on the fast trad air ‘The Yellow Wattle’, she played it more or less straight, and the effect was almost conventional.

Behind it all, the drone, as constant as the sky. The drone is one of the great continuums in the lineage of outsider music, from ambient and modern classical to free jazz and the further reaches of noise rock. A circular note, an unceasing breath, a monophonic anchor, it is both futuristic and primal. In Chaimbeul’s case it tied the more free-flying parts of her music to its roots, dragging into the present the hardness, sorrow and magic of historical Highland experience and its folklore.

She informed us that ‘Tha Fonn Gun Bhi Trom’, which translates as ‘I am Disposed of Mirth’, is about a woman lamenting the fact that her lover will not marry her because she doesn’t possess enough cows. Later, there were tunes concerning a headless ghost and, on ‘Piobaireachd Nan Eu’ (‘The Birds’), that eternal symbol of Celtic mysticism: the swan. Chaimbeul sang on the latter, a low, guttural incantation, but otherwise her instrument did all the talking. Behind her, a black and white film displayed flickering images of sea spray, abandoned crofts, cliffs, rocks, trees and extended slow-motion footage of a woman Highland-dancing.

And that Philip Glass piece? A transposition of Two Pages from organ to pipes which was both stunningly dextrous and, ultimately, something of an endurance test.

An hour of Chaimbeul was plenty, but what a strangely captivating hour it was.

Kathryn Williams & Withered Hand (the stage name of Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Dan Willson) have set aside their solo careers for now to make a collaborative record, Willson Williams, which they are touring throughout May. Some collaborations are less than the sum of their parts. This one feels like a wise accumulation; a modest, tasteful extension to the family home. The co-written songs are full of melody, dry humour and quiet grief. This is the music of mundanity: fixing shelves, losing friends, falling short, ducking social commitments, too much wine, too little time. The music of struggling spouses, anxious parents and exhausted grown-up children. The big stuff, in other words, folded inside a million small moments.

On stage, the pair were as informal, loosely conversational and understated as their songs. The interaction between their voices felt natural, as though one was finishing the other’s sentences. Nothing they did reinvented the wheel. The melodies were drawn from familiar folk, pop and rock idioms, played without frills on acoustic and occasionally electric guitars. A cover of Cat Stevens’s ‘If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out’ summed up the mood of precarious optimism. You couldn’t call this a honed performance, exactly, but the craft on display was nonetheless considerable. Should you attend one of these shows, the odds are that you will leave feeling better than you did when you arrived, which feels like a win.

Brìghde Chaimbeul is on tour until September (her last gig is in London in September). Details here:


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