Blue Mountains Theatre, April 13
Ah, poor Scotland. Its people could have ducked the whole Brexit debacle if they’d voted for independence from the UK five years ago. Still, on the bright side (a very occasional summer phenomenon in those latitudes, much remarked upon), they have Manran to keep their spirits up. Across the last eight years the folk-rock band has become something of an institution, holding aloft the torch of Scottish traditional music, to which the members add their own finely crafted tunes. As well, by virtue of being young, singing in Gaelic and beefing the music up with a pumping rhythm section, they help spread the word to new audiences.
For those with a Scottish heritage, the music (epitomised by the bagpipes’ skirl) is in the blood, like a tartan hormone, and this band is at its most potent when Ewen Henderson relinquishes his fiddle and takes up his pipes. The effect is made unique by having Irishman Ryan Murphy on board playing uilleann pipes (plus flute and tin whistle), and the twin bagpipe attack could heat the blood of any non-Celt. It also allows one to discern the difference between the more plaintive timbre of the uilleann pipes and the more rousing sound of the Highland ones.
Henderson is also the band’s primary vocalist, and while not having a massive voice, he sings with an understated urgency that makes his work compelling, even when one knows no Gaelic. Beyond his and Murphy’s instruments the tunes were carried by Colin Nicholson’s accordion (seamlessly deputising for Gary Innes). His job would have been complicated by all the jolting syncopations the band builds into the tunes, which, when hammered out by Craig Irving (acoustic guitar) Ross Saunders (bass) and Mark Scobbie (drums) become launch-pads to hurl the music into the next phase of a set of tunes. Even if the band’s surgical precision can dampen the energy, when added to the anthemic dramas and sweet laments (including The Open Door), it all makes for a potent combination.