Posted by John Hepworth.
Reviewed on 15th September 2005.
Live at Otley Methodist Hall on Thursday, 1st September 2005
How far beyond expectation is the word 'lush' when describing Scottish traditional music? Well, it can turn up here - because the musicians are the John McCusker Band, and listening to them you get the quality of the playing, the power of the sound, and a strength that is not a matter of amplification. To listen to these four can be a near-orchestral experience as Gaelic tunes take on the guise of little concertos without losing their native form.
Along with older and traditional material much is written by members of the band, some by fellow-musicians from near and far, and all of it went down a treat on the first date of the band's September tour - and trailblazer for Otley Folk Festival (15-18 Sept) - in front a hundred-strong audience in the town's revamped teetotal venue. "Great biscuits", said John, after fuelling up on them in the interval break, and said it again when leaving no contributor unthanked at the end of a sparkling show.
Great musicianship too, from players of considerable status who all have their own CDs in addition to the band work, (though melodionist Andy Cutting's supply were at home in Leith.) The Glaswegian McCusker, world-famous for his ways with the fiddle, showed he can do a fair bit with the aluminium whistle and is at ease with a cittern. One of his other pleasures is to introduce his singing double-bassist, the Orcadian Kris Drever who also sang while adding second guitar to that of Ian Carr - whose Welshness is acknowledged in a tune title. So breadth of origin is in the players themselves, as well as in the music and all the impressive professional connections.
Vital to the fiddle-led style of the band is Andy Cutting's melodion, blending so perfectly with John's fiddle that on this occasion the string sound may have been a little masked at times - possibly a peculiarity of this building, where an upper gallery round three sides can hold down some of the sound. In case this is getting a bit serious, let's mention 'The Shetland Molecule', 'Eiggbound', 'Cockadoodle (I'm Off My Noodle)', and the only known piece of music commemorating an unrequited three-hour wait for Janet Jackson. In addition, conscientiously enacted examples of spoken humour arrived punctually between numbers. And not only is the new album called Goodnight Ginger but there's a diverting tale to explain why.
Throughout the concert, amplification could probably have been reduced with no loss of delivery, and that may have been fairer to the subtlety and sensitivity of the performance as well as to its vigour. A gentle response to the eager demand for an encore was the beautiful waltz 'Christ Church' written by Dubliners' fiddle player John Sheahan. It brought an extra dimension to the evening and was one several items put before an audience for the first time. Such success with even the newest things in the repertoire is a firm positive sign for the rest of the tour.