The Shee

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

24 September 2016

I really like the Queen's Hall. It has an unusual interior but it's really attractive, and the sound is great, the only downside being the bench seats: a bit hard on the posterior. There's cabaret-style table seating in the middle, but being a traditionalist I opted for the front of the "stalls" behind that—still pretty close to the stage, and the raised elevation giving a perfect view.

I'm not used to seeing The Shee with a support band, and sort of bregrudge it because it subtracts from the playing time in the main set, but the best way to discover new bands is by seeing support acts, so I'm happy to give them a go.

And, oh my God, I am not exaggerating when I say that Sarah Hayes is the best support act I have discovered in thirty years of going to gigs. Sarah sings and plays piano (and organ?), flute and whistle, and I assume wrote all the music. She is joined by a six-person band (and I'm sorry I'm not going to remember all their names) of guitar, double bass, drums, percussion, accordion (and backing vocal) and violin (and backing vocal).

And for 45 minutes, they played a single, continuous suite of music.

It was simply astonishing. Though played through as a seamless whole, it moved through so many themes and moods that it held my attention throughout, and could have gone on forever as far as I was concerned. While obviously informed by traditional music (and with half-recognised traditional music fragments contained within it—Four Loom Weaver a very obvious one), it sounded modern, complex and ambitious. It actually got (and deserved) a standing ovation at the end.

People who know me primarily as a rock fan possibly wonder why I spend so much time at folk gigs. This is why. Modern folk is progressive rock under another name. Listen, you people reading this who are hard-core prog fanatics (yes, you know who you are), look for and buy the CD of this music, Woven by Sarah Hayes, and you'll find something as instrumentally intricate, compositionally complex, thematically deep, and with as many different time-signature changes as any of your favourite bands. You will love this music. Trust me. I swear on my collection of Marillion albums.

So, ok. Tough act for The Shee to follow. Particularly since they'll be playing all-new music from their new album, Continuum, so they'll have to win me over without any of my favourite songs to fall back on. (Some of the music I've heard before, at their gig in January, but I deliberately hadn't bought the new CD yet, partly because I wanted to hear it fresh in concert, and partly because I like to buy albums at gigs whenever I can—why give money to the post office when I can give it to the band?)

But I don't take three-hour train journeys for just any old band. I've been following The Shee for nearly a decade, and they have never disappointed me, and they don't tonight either. It helps that they have commissioned six amazing (and fairly prestigious) song writers to write six new pieces for the album. I've already talked about this in my review of the January gig, so I won't go into detail again. Suffice to say that I have six new favourite Shee songs. Every piece is beautiful.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that, despite working separately, the six writers have come up with a set of competely diverse pieces so you're getting a proper, varied and well-structured concert set list, and one that not only takes advantages of all the talent in the band but also ticks all the boxes that you want to see ticked at a Shee concert. None of the songs feature a solo lead instrument, they all follow the Shee pattern of complex ensemble playing with individual instruments lifting up to carry the lead melody for a while before subsiding and passing it on. And all the pieces feel like they're written with the band's unique characteristics in mind. In Kathryn Tickell's traditionally-based instrumental Ower Late for the Lasses, Shona Mooney and Olivia Ross face each other and play the most beautifully complex, interweaving violin lines ever—and that's a Shee song, that's what they do! All The Shee trademarks are there: Olivia Ross sings a ballad that makes me cry? Check. Rachel Newton plays bass electro-harp notes that vibrate right through my chest? Check. Beautiful use of three-part vocal harmonies? Check (and even four, five, and six parts). But the personalities of the composers are there too. On Martin Simpson's Dance With Me, you can hear his guitar in Laura-Beth Salter's mandolin, for example.

The only thing they missed was a clog dance. But Amy Thatcher sneaks one into the encore, so all is well with the world. I can go home happy. More than happy. Either half of tonight's concert is the best I've ever seen.

Oh, and I know where the vampire rabbit is in Newcastle.

Gah, I bent the corner of the Continuum CD package in my coat pocket on the way back to the hotel. I might have to buy another one.