String Sisters arrived at The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh stage tonight as they continue their successful run of shows (having just a few days ago played The Orkney Folk Festival and a show in Inverness) and are obviously on top form.
The band are a bit of a mystery to me to be honest, and the biggest mystery is how, despite the fact that the band was founded 18 years ago in 2000 by Shetland fiddler Catriona Macdonald, I have up until now missed them and this is my first exposure to their music. Other mysteries include how they are making the difficult look so effortless on stage.
String Sisters, as the promo stuff tells me, blends Nordic and Celtic traditions into an all-encompassing sound, but the sound is far wider in scope than this. Tonight’s performance drew upon the varied backgrounds of all musicians, and classical music and music with its roots as far back as the medieval period also fused their way into a seamless performance that was a great tribute to the huge skills as musical arrangers that the band have.
This is a truly international band consisting now of fiddlers Annbjørg Lien (Norway), Catriona Macdonald (Shetland), Emma Härdelin (Sweden), Liz Carroll (United States), Liz Knowles (United States), Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (Ireland) plus Tore Bruvoll (Norway) on guitar, Dave Milligan (Scotland) on piano, Conrad Molleson (Scotland) on bass and James Mackintosh (Scotland) on percussion. This is more than just music though, this is a celebration of what music can do for the inner soul of a person, and the joy that every member of this band gets from their music was evident all night. The different nationalities of the band also allow them to explore how music has shaped their cultures and traditions and how like “living archaeology”, music is leaving behind clues as to how sometimes apparently different cultures are still connected to one another with a common thread. Music is one of the great cultural binding elements in our society throughout history, and String Sisters recognise this fact and celebrate it to its joyous limits.
String Sisters have a new album out at the moment, “Between Wind and Water”, launched in January this year. It is a 12 track album, and obviously many of these tracks were in this show’s set list. A full listing of the album tracks is at the end of this review, and a visit to String Sisters website at http://www.stringsisters.net/ will give you a lot more information about these songs and of course the band and its members.
There were songs of lightness and darkness in this performance, but few can be darker than the macabre “Wind and Rain” based upon the traditional “Two Sisters” and merging with Wind And Rain (Traditional) and Parker’s Mill (Liz Knowles). How much darker and macabre can you get than one sister killing another over her jealousy for a man by putting her into the river and the dead sister then found and her bones and hair made into a fiddle that only plays one tune –“Wind and Rain”.
The new album is a melting pot of music from traditional reels, to polkas, to ballads (and pretty much everything in between), and songs and music like “Mo Níon Ó” and “The Blooming Conductor” have put “Between Wind and Water”, onto my “listen to properly” list.
Of course, this show was not just about the new album, and traditional songs from Celtic and Nordic traditions played a big part in the set list and the overall music of the night with songs like “Gravel Walks to Granie”.
String Sisters do effortlessly what is often considered to be the most difficult thing of all in traditional folk music – making your music sound like it has always been there. The blend of old and new is seamless. Finishing off a classic evening of music, The Friel sisters joined everyone on-stage to play too.
“Between Wind And Water” TRACK LISTING
1The Crow's Visit
2 Wind and Rain
3 Open to the Elements
5 Det bor i mina tankar
7 Tiger in the Galley
8 Mo Níon Ó
9 Return from Helsinki
11 Late Night in Forde
12 The Blooming Conductor (Live)
Review by Tom King