Karine Polwart @ Birmingham Town Hall, 2nd November 2018

Scarcely seen in Birmingham, it’s with great delight that Polwart’s path has finally brought her to these parts in celebration of her latest release, ‘Laws of Motion’. Tonight’s audience is rewarded for their patience with not one, but two, rousing sets from one of Scottish folk music’s most candid, poetic and contemporary voices. A consistently featured name in the shortlist for folk album of the year, this latest collection of material has seen Polwart’s efforts recognised at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, nabbing the award for Folk Singer of the Year.

Karine Polwart, her brother, Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson arrive to the stage and before any music can be played, Karine must contend with the spirits of trickery and guile in the form of an awkwardly positioned microphone. What starts out as a momentary halt to proceedings, descends into the farcical, as each turn of the microphone results in a brief stasis in which the entire hall hang in the hope that the incremental adjustment will result in the desired outcome. After multiple attempts, and much giggling, Polwart is finally able to begin, acknowledging the less than perfect start by offering to walk off and on again. The comic relief serves as a welcome addition to the set, offering the audience and performers the chance to bond before a single note is played.

The three-piece find their respected instruments – Stephen Polwart on guitar, Karine Polwart shifting between guitar and an ancient looking harmonium, whilst Inge Thomson is almost encased within a multitude of percussive instruments, providing a wondrous pallet of sounds which manage to enthral throughout, not to mention Thomson’s delightfully misty vocal harmonies. The bond between the three musicians is undeniably tight given the warmth and humour emanating from the stage.

Karine Polwart’s speaking voice lends itself brilliantly to the opening narration that informs the first item on the setlist, ’I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’, a song which draws upon the Isle of Lewis, for inspiration – the largest island of the Outer Hebrides – and an imagined account of the Islands’s thought’s on Donald Trump current endeavours given his ancestral links to Scotland. A seamless shift see’s the group bleed into ‘Cover Your Eyes’, yet another Trump inspired composition, a rumination on the environmental destruction caused by the executive golf course Trump built in Aberdeenshire. The performance of both songs is truly stunning and results in multiple expletives tumbling from under my breath. Rarely have I witnessed such an impactful opening to a concert.

Much of Polwart’s set features songs often inspired by real events.’Young Man On A Mountain’ attempts to articulate that which Polwart’s own grandfather, Tony Polwart, could not, regarding the horrors he experienced in Italy during the second world war. Polwart’s writing seems to marvel at the dualities of creation and destruction that permeate much of nature and humanity. ‘Suitcase’ – a song written with Lau’s Martin Green – documents the heroic efforts of the Czech Kindertransport operation that rescued hundreds of children from an unimaginable fate at the hands of the numerous Nazi camps.

The heavy subject matter is often reconciled by the necessity that is humour. Throughout much of the set, Polwart and her accomplices are full of warmth and absurdity. There is the moment when Karine explains how she believes that she has written a song – ‘Here’s Where Tomorrow Starts’ -that will almost undoubtedly secure her the rights to the next John Lewis Christmas advert. Steven jokes about what a delight it is to perform on the highest stage of the tour so far, alluding to the trio’s middle-aged attempts to access the stage before realising that their was an alternate, more dignified, method of access. Then during the interval, this prospect of having to make the leap becomes a reality for Karine as she finds herself locked out from the backstage area. Salvation arrives just in the nick of time, a shaft of light beams into the hall, signalling an end to slapstick interlude.

This is the first time that I have had the privilege of hearing Polwart. Her writing is clinical in its ability to floor you. Polwart is also capable of flooring through her interpretation of others music. Before the evening comes to an end, there are covers of Sydney Carter’s, ‘Crow On The Cradle’, a wholly unexpected and delightful cover of The Buggles ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, but it’s with a performance of Frightened Rabbit’s, ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’, that the hall are left utterly bowled over by the gnawing beauty of the playing. First impressions aren’t everything. It is the underlying substance or lack of that will ultimately define us. The Polwart’s and Thomson are a spectacularly formidable unit. The depth of the songwriting and the appetite for playing mean that this evening will live long in the memory, Let us hope, for our sakes, that Polwart does not leave it quite so long before returning to these parts.

Reviewer: Chris Curtis

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