The Elizabethan Session

Mitchell Library, Glasgow

18 January 2015

Six months ago, I saw the Elizabethan Session play their last gig. The plan was supposed to be that they would only play three concerts, ever. I managed to see the second and third of them, and told everybody what an injustice it was that I would never see this superb collection of musicians on stage together again.

Then they announced another "last gig" at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. Yay!

So here I am.

First things first: there was, unexpectedly, a support band. Three guys from Denmark and Sweden called Dreamers' Circus (not that they told us their name; I had to learn it by buying their CD) who played instrumental music on piano, accordion, fiddle, guitar and cittern. Astonishingly good music, complex and alternately softly beautiful and intensely dramatic. Their 45-minute set started with a 10-minute epic and ended with an arrangement of the Prelude from Bach's third violin Partita. I don't think I've ever heard anything quite like this before. Their set was worth the price of admission. In fact, I kind of wished they had done a full headlining set, and seriously worried that the Elizabethan Session would pale in comparison.

Then after a short interval, the eight members of the Elizabethan Session took the stage, opened (as previously) with Shores of Hispaniola, and I was reminded why I had come. It's a textbook example of how to construct a rock song, an opening harp riff building with the additon of, one by one, percussion (Hannah James' clogs!), voice, fiddle, and finally all the instruments joining in a rocking finale. It was my #1 song of 2014 live and on CD, and it still sounds epic live.

But the thing that makes this group special for me is how diverse their music is. Shores of Hispaniola rocks, and at the other end of the scale Bella Hardy's Hatfield makes me cry. Eve's Apology in Defence of Woman shows how perfect the unconventional pairing of electroharp and banjo can be (seriously, is this unique to this song?), and ends with an extended instrumental that you want to go on for ever and ever. Broadside has a boggling twin-guitar riff. Emily Askew brings a whole extra dimension to the evening of "folk" music with a wide variety of period instruments and tunes that evoke the Elizabethan era just as much as, if not more so than, the lyrics of the group's songs. And the moment in True Lover's Knot Untied where the accordion melody changes to a rhythmic pulse and Hannah James sings "Cut this old maiden..." is, for reasons I can't explain, one of those musically perfect moments you get at great gigs.

Ah, I'm doing a terrible job of describing the music. You'll have to buy the album and see what I mean. And then realise that it's even better live.

Each of the eight members contributes music of a startling different character to the last, seemingly too much variety for the banner "folk music" to hold. But then, the best music doesn't sit in a single genre anyway.

And despite only having one album to draw upon, they still manage to play for an hour and a half, including several songs which weren't on the album—I was sure they had played more than the CD contents when I first saw them, and this confirms it as I recognised at least a couple of the additional tunes from last March. Plus, clog dancing!

And the most important thing, of course, is that when it was all over I sat there convinced this was the best concert I have ever seen and wished it hadn't ended.

I really love this music, and it's a tragedy that it won't get played again, as this is their last ever concert.

On the other hand, last July was supposed to be their last ever concert, and and yet here we are tonight. So you never know.

The Sage is a really nice venue.

I'm just saying.