It’s traditional now to note that Peter Bruntnell is a true “cult hero” (courtesy The Guardian) and is commonly regarded as one of the UK’s best singer-songwriters and performers by those “in the know.” So it was great to find him popping up at this year’s Celtic Connections playing with his, by now, well-seasoned trio line up featuring Iain Sloan on guitar and pedal steel, and Danny Williams on double bass. Since this line up’s debut back in 2017 they’ve had time to hone their chops and tonight’s show was certainly the best this reporter has experienced in their company so far.
Kicking off with a song from 2008’s ‘Peter And The Murder Of Crows’ album, ‘Clothes Of Winter’, it was immediately apparent that Bruntnell can just about tear you apart with a song as this plaintively beautiful number wafted from the stage. There was a barrage of these melancholic and wistful songs scattered throughout the set, drawn from his fulsome catalogue going back to ‘N.F.B.’ and coming bang up to date with the gorgeously gliding ‘Broken Wing’ and the gossamer like ‘Snow Queen’, both from his latest album, ‘King Of Madrid’. Sloan and Williams were both on magnificent form cosseting these songs in a sympathetic manner, but they were also able to drum up some muscle on a couple of the more dramatic numbers as when they set up a rumbling and menacing intro to ‘False Start’. This had Bruntnell picking out notes on his acoustic guitar reminding us of what a fine guitarist he is, even coaxing sitar like sounds from his pedals, the song ending in a rhapsodic and rapturous melange of sounds. This was however eclipsed by a tremendous rendition of ‘Cold Water Swimming’ which had a ’60s raga rock vibe to it with Iain Sloan’s Telecaster powerfully driving the song forwards. Meanwhile ‘Have You Seen That Girl Again’ allowed Sloan the opportunity to duel with Bruntnell’s acoustic licks on the heaviest song of the night.
Despite Bruntnell feeling a bit under the weather and Williams wearing a “stookie” on his right leg (a footballing misadventure), this was a lengthy set, 16 or 17 songs long including gems such as ‘Domestico’, tonight sounding like a Byrds’ number, and ‘End Of The World’ which had a fine Uncle Tupelo feel to it. The set closed with Bruntnell performing a solo rendition of his “attempt to write a Buddy Holly type song” as he offered us another wistful song with ‘Caroline’ before his bandmates returned for a closing and magnificent rendition of ‘By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix’, definitely the best song ever written about cryogenic skulls and simply put, one of the best songs ever.
Playing to a packed house and offering the crowd some fine bon mots regarding the songs and some of his past misdemeanours and travails, this was Peter Bruntnell on top form. The audience were entranced throughout as the trio played these exceptional songs in an exceptional manner.
Opening the show tonight was a Bostonian who now lives in Edinburgh. Mally Smith might owe a fair bit to very early Joni Mitchell (circa Clouds) but she managed to engage the audience with her slightly gauche confessions while songs such as ‘The Spider’s Song’ and ‘Little Bullet’ were well delivered. Her best number was a new song, ‘Dive In’, which relates to her love of being in Scotland and which allowed a little Celtic folkiness into her singing with its slight similarity to the pagan folk songs of the Wicker Man.