It's a cool Tuesday evening in Swindon, and there is a strong north wind that has obviously followed the singer and her entourage down from North Uist, a small island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The Swindon Arts Centre has been refurbished within the last five years, and the venue is now a smart but small all-seater venue which makes for a relaxed and intimate gig.
Now I am a punk rock fan and there is no denying this, and my only experience with Irish folk music extends as far as my dad's Foster & Allen CD's, so to be faced with an evening of Scottish Gaelic folk music was a challenge that I was going into open-minded and with a little caution. Julie Fowlis sings in the beautiful language of Scottish Gaelic too, and so I must first apologise to her if my interpretations of her language are somewhat off of the mark – as a child I had a job to understand the guy down our local shop with a thick Welsh accent, and it was of course, only later on that my mother told me that Mr Patel was in fact Indian, so you see I am liable to make the odd cultural mistake.
I think that Julie must be fully aware of my special needs as when she appears on the stage – to much applause, I might add – followed by her band of merry men (including fiancé Eamon Doorley), she welcomes us in both Scottish Gaelic, and the more traditional language of these parts that is Wiltshire-influenced English, which despite popular belief is not as Somerset-sounding as other counties seem to think! She then goes on to introduce each song and give us a little background before the band jump straight into the opening song, 'Hug Air A' Bhonald Mhor' which we are told is "...a song about a hat!", or a bonnet to be exact, and before you ask, no, I've not done a sudden crash course in the language, her CD has the translations included. It's an upbeat jig that has you tapping your feet along with the guitar strums.
In a dark room surrounded by people slightly older than myself it's easy to get caught up and transported away to another land. A land that has a beautiful language that skips around the atmosphere like imps and angels, sprinkling everyone with happy magical dust. This is how I feel as the slow love song of 'Mo Ghruagach Dhonn' plays out which is a song about 'My brown haired lass'. Things then speed up a bit with jaunty high notes of Julie with her whistle along with Eamon on his bouzouki (which is like a teardrop-shaped guitar, in case you wondered), before the fiddle kicks in through John McCusker, with an almost beautiful duel that is more about love and less about domination of outplaying the other.
We have most of the songs from Julie Fowlis' new album 'Cuilidh' all played out with such precise beauty that you stop and look at some of the bands that think that turning up and shouting out vocals - that pay little or resemblance to the highly-produce albums they come from - is acceptable. With no disrespect to the venue, I suspect that it doesn't have the best of sound systems, however this shows how well the band play as each note is clear and crisp, and in some songs Julie sings over the gentle sounds of guitar or bouzouki like in 'Turas San Lochmor' which is a song about the famous boat Lochmor that sails between the islands.
We have another fast paced flurry of Gaelic vocals in the set 'Puirt-a-beul' which is three quick songs whereby the vocals and lyrics are written to sound like music, and so have throwaway lyrics like, "I'm fond of potatoes and butter // I'm fond of the ladies..." and I don't think that there is much argument with either of those things. I suspect that this is the pop/punk of this genre as it is quick, light-hearted and catchy-as-hell.
We are even treated to an encore which has crowd participation and we are taught some Scottish Gaelic, however my voice is pure raw punk rock and everyone around me appeared to have been waiting for this moment to show off their vocal talents, and I was left feeling like I was at a church where everyone else knows the words and hits the notes, and I'm left stumbling between octaves like an adolescent boy...
Julie Fowlis gives us some wonderful melodies wrapped up in songs so deep with culture that it really makes you think before buying the pop clap-trap that has been thrust out of a computer in five minutes and forced down our throats through corporate radio. This is the thinking man's music. However it is worth noting that each of the musicians are very down to earth and between songs we get little stories and jokes thrown in for free.
This is one punk rocker that left fully entertained, enlightened and with a mystical grin, and a skip in his step! Great stuff!