Smile Politely

Whoops and stamps for Scotland’s Julie Fowlis

A $20 ticket was $20 well-earned Monday night by a skilled Scottish and Irish folk group led by Julie Fowlis.

The group, touring under Fowlis’s name, played a polished, personable set, mixed with genial cross-isle jibes and elaborate song explanations which themselves were delivered with emotion and solid theatrical timing.

A lot has been written about Julie Fowlis’s voice and appearance. Most of it drawn from “mystic isle” imagery and Tolkien. But is she really a pixie-sorceror whose voice shrouds the heart like a mournful hebrides fog?

Monday night, Fowlis’s voice had a clear, versatile tone that moved comfortably between melancholic resignation and sprinting, percussive yips and whoops.

She sang both extremes with her eyes closed, right hand resting gently on the mic stand while her left rose and fell and trembled through songs. At times she’d sway gently or swipe her voice across mic for a doppler accent.

Fowlis sang a pleasing mix of stamped dances and mournful love songs in Scottish Gaelic. The sad ones were usually about a young man gone away never to return. The happier ones were about potatoes and women, or sailors barfing on the highseas.

Halfway through the show, Fowlis took a break and let the accomplished fiddler Jenna Reid hold the stage. Jenna’s micro-set provided a welcome, mild contrast to Fowlis.

Backed only by guitar, Jenna’s jaunty, looping hornpipes recalled grainy, black-and-white strolls down the boardwalk, puffed-cheek whistling, and caps doffed to songbirds and waffle vendors.

By the end of her set, glasses rattled across tables as members of the once-reticent audience pounded along with fist and foot.

Ms. Reid exemplified the workmanlike polish and independent talents of Fowlis’s backing band, which included Tony Byrne (Dublin) on guitar and Eamon Doorley (Dublin) on what was likely a bouzouki or mandolin.

Doorley was comic relief for the evening, with ample jibes aimed at his Scottish bandmates. When Fowlis introduced one Scottish song in Gaelic, Doorley translated the title as “Hold the candlestick steady while I shave the chicken’s upper lip.”

Byrne spoke through his instrument, with rhythmic chording and bass note slides that mimicked the Irish bodhran drum. It was startling to realize that the sound was his doing.

By the end of the evening, the band’s cordial stage presence and sheer virtuosity loosened up a quiet and intent audience. During Fowlis’s last four tunes, which she described as the voice mimicking the sound of an instrument, people on all sides clapped in time and shook the floor with stomps.

The claps segued into outright and prolonged applause as the gracious band left the stage, only to return for an encore. I say gracious because the band remembered to thank the sound guy, which is a pretty classy move.

For the encore, Fowlis took the stage and pulled out an instrument, which given the energetic immensity of the moment, could only be described as “the mutha’ fuckin’ bagpipes.”

The pipes were as much fun to watch as to hear, as Fowlis grappled with what appeared to be black velvet goose stuck with full-size spears. The pipes made for a loud closing that again had the audience pounding along.

As the pipes faded, a man in front stood, turned around and said to no one in particular, “That was good.”

Others lined up for autographs and long chats with the performers. Standing near the merch table was like witnessing a friendliness competition between notoriously nice midwesterners and famously gregarious island folk.

Hopefully, on their next stop-through, more people will have the opportunity to chat with this well-rounded group of performers.

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