Karine Polwart, The Barbican, London, 27th November 2019

Karine Polwart came to The Barbican to showcase her latest album ‘Scottish Songbook’ which consists of re-imagined songs by Scottish pop artists – using the term pop quite loosely – of the last fifty years. The album (available on Vinyl, CD and, yes, even cassette, at all good Merch stalls) came out of a show organised as part of the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition ‘Rip it up: The Story of Scottish Pop’ and features eleven tracks – these all appeared at this gig, expanded to include another nine songs making the gig the Deluxe Edition of the album.

These are not straight renditions of songs more or less well-known; instead, Polwart and her band have applied a modern folk reshaping to their chosen tunes. It’s a very personal selection, which as Polwart herself was quick to admit, does return to the 1980s quite frequently. Even that’s an understatement – we’ve run the numbers and although each decade of the last fifty years is represented, thirteen of the night’s songs came from 1981-1988 making the gig very much ‘Karine Polwart’s Teenage Years Scottish Songbook.’  That’s not such a problem as an unscientific analysis would suggest a fairly strong age correlation between singer and audience, and therefore, a reasonable chance that a folk mash-up of Bronski Beat and The Eurythmics would go down well.

The gig – like the album – opened with ‘Whole of the Moon’, superbly stripped back, slowed down and haunting in its new plaintive simplicity. With the anthemic pulled away, the song became again that flash of almost-Dylan we gratefully half glimpsed all those years ago. There’s nothing anthemic about Karine Polwart – she is a slight stage presence, focused on delivering the songs and there are no big gestures. And if the Waterboys had seen a dramatic change then the reworking of Chvrches ‘The Mother we Share’ was doubly slow – all the synthesizers and vocorder effects are gone, although Karine Polwart and Inge Thomson recreate the synthesized “oh-oh-oh-oh” on what has ceased to be electronica and become pure folk-rock. And, just to show that this music thing is a strange business, Polwart’s 2012 album ‘Traces’ was produced by Chvrches’ Iain Cook – and she laughingly notes that she could never afford him now.

It’s clear that it is lyrics that appeal to Polwart, who makes a warm folk song of The Blue Nile’s bleak synthesizer poetry reading ‘From Rags to Riches’ and she revels in pulling the song into the upbeat realm and stuffing it full of percussion – one could be mistaken for thinking that it was The Proclaimers being covered as she declares, “We are in love, we are in love with the feeling, wild wild sky, wild wild….sky”. Fortunately, the reading of ‘I Could be Happy’ is one of the straightest of the evening – Altered Images created a perfect moment of jangle-rock and the only thing to do, in order to do it justice, is to not to attempt to sound like Claire Grogan, at which Polwart is wholly successfully. It’s a blissful little pleasure. As is ‘Party Fears Two’, stripped of all its overblown hysteria, it became a suitably paranoid folk song in the hands of drummer turned guitarist and lead vocalist Louis Abbot.

Not all songs can hope to fully succeed because they have to overcome the listener’s ingrained opinions about the originals – in effect Polwart is tossing singles across the room and saying, “Try this, try this, what do you think of this?” but no matter how persuasive she is Deacon Blue’s ‘Dignity’ remains flawed. It’s all the little niggling doubts and irritants – is this bloke ever going to save enough money to get his dinghy and does anyone really refer to a dinghy as a ship other than when trying to make a line of lyrics scan? And while Polwart declares her complete fandom in going to forty six Big Country gigs they’re still a band that can split opinion – although the moody and breathless take on ‘Chance’ makes a strong effort to dispel all doubts. However, Ivor Cutler’s ‘Women of the World’, reduced to just the refrain, works brilliantly by having Louis Abbot initiating the singing – a sole male voice pleading for women to come and sort out the mess the world is in, and then building up hypnotically as the rest of the band harmonise. Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Swim Until you can’t see Land’, though, takes on layers of poignancy when viewed through the lens of Scott Hutchison’s death – although Polwart and her band make it a light celebration of a song, there’s no disguising an undertow of despair: “If I hadn’t had come here to the coast to disappear / I might have died in a landslide of rocks and hopes and fears”. The instruction of the song title can be taken at least two ways – leave the problem so far behind that it no longer affects you, but then there’s a protective admonishment to not get out of your depth and a grim hint of finality in all this: “The sea has seen my like before though it’s my first and perhaps last time.” Beautifully moving.

There’s no denying that Karine Polwart is a folk singer at heart, which is why versions of John Martyn’s ‘Don’t Want to Know’ and Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Whatever’s Written in your Heart’  work so well. She’s also willing to stretch the definition of Scottish to include being born and living for two years in Dumbarton before being taken to Canada and ultimately the USA. Without doing this the ever timely and highly percussive ‘Road to Nowhere’ wouldn’t have made the set list. A fine and enjoyable gig – whether it’s truly a celebration of Fifty Years of Scottish Pop is debatable, but the ability for pop to really have an influence, and to contain thoughts and ideas that can transcend the music they were originally pinned to, is certainly there. Nostalgia reshaped is a look to the future, and Karine Polwart’s case that these songs from a grey rainy land will have continued life and meaning, was well made.

Photo: Sandy Butler

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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