The Shee

Queen's Hall, Hexham

13 October 2012

I saw The Shee in the Cumberland Arms on Tuesday and was wavering on whether to go to Hexham to see them for the second time in a week. Every time I played the new album, I thought, yes, yes, I must go. And every time I looked at the train times, I thought, no, no, I can't.

I finally decided on the afternoon of the gig. I phoned the Queen's Hall and found out precisely when the gig would start (7.30, no support band). And because I knew from Tuesday how long they played (45 minutes, interval, 60 minutes, encores), I knew I could make the last train home. Barely. Close enough to be worth the chance, anyway.

I am immensely glad I made that decision. Seeing the band in a proper theatre is miles better than in the back room of a pub. I could sit in comfort and have a cup of coffee before the show, and have an ice cream in the interval. What more could you ask from a venue?

Well, there's the matter of a good acoustic, a good sound system, lights that don't leave half the band in darkness, and seating that lets you see the stage properly. All of which the Queen's Hall has. It's a great venue.

The auditorium was maybe two-thirds full (a couple of hundred people?) so even without booking in advance I got a perfect seat, on the right-hand side so I could see Rachel's fingers and high enough up the slope of the stalls to see Amy's feet. (Both of these are very important.)

Ok, some people reading this won't know who The Shee are (and if you look on their web site, it won't actually tell you!). They are, left to right (always in the same order on stage):

Laura-Beth Salter (mandolin and voice), Lillias Kinsman-Blake (flute), Shona Mooney (violin), Olivia Ross (violin, viola, and voice), Amy Thatcher (accordion and clog dancing), and Rachel Newton (electric harp and voice).

So, now you can probably figure out what kind of music they play...

It's folk music. It has to be with those instruments. But it's folk with a modern feel. Among the Scottish Ballads and traditional tunes there's a distinct bluegrass influence, and a large part of the set is modern material written by different members of the band (and some modern covers, e.g. a rocking version of Dick Gaughan's Tom Paine's Bones). The electric harp gives the ensemble a unique modern twist, often taking the role of the "bass guitar" in a modern band. It's not quite Fairport Convention, but The Shee should appeal to the same fans. The set alternates songs and instrumentals, fast and slow tempos, and constantly switches lead instrument, making this one of the most varied and versatile bands I've seen live.

I've seen them a live a number of times and this was the best I've ever seen them. I'm sure this is partly due to the strength of their new album, Murmurations, which is their best work yet. One problem I have found in past gigs is that when all six play in ensemble the result can threaten to overload the sound system and, frankly, not sound too great. That's where tonight's excellent sound mix scored heavily. But more than that, their new songs seem to rely less heavily on ensemble playing, and more on thoughful combinations of instruments. Such as the sparse mandolin and accordion accompanying Laura-Beth's voice on the waltz Our Bottle, or the violin duet giving way to a solo mandolin on Highlands and Flatlands. Beautiful.

But the ensemble playing is still there, and the band in full flight (through a decent sound system) on the more uptempo tunes is stunning, all perfect harmonies and flawless tempo changes, with different instruments lifting up above the ensemble in turn to carry the melody.

The new songs are more adventurous in the vocal harmonies, too, making full use of the three lead singers working together. Particularly noteworthy are Our Bottle and Three Knights (lead vocal by Rachel).

All this and clog dancing in the encore. What more could you want? (Well, I might have wanted MacCrimmon's from the first album, because I love it. But, you know, complaining is petty when the set was already crammed with nearly two hours of perfect music.)

I came out with a huge smile on my face, still singing all the tunes, convinced this was the best concert I have ever seen.

And that's all you can want, really.

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