During a hectic Fringe, it’s not uncommon to find harassed reviewers jumping from venue to venue with scant knowledge of the next act on their schedule. So it was that I arrived at Assembly Rooms with the vague impression that Karen Matheson was a comedian. As a mature audience assembled outside the grand ballroom, however, it became evident that if Matheson was a comedian, she must be an unusually wholesome one. As this benighted reviewer was soon to discover, Matheson is no wholesome stand-up – she’s a wholesome singer, and not just any singer, but one blessed with a voice as sweet as Scottish honey.
Karen Matheson is in fact an acclaimed Scottish folk singer, better known for her work with Capercaillie. For this evening’s solo performance, she is backed up by a male ensemble on the guitar, double bass and keyboard.
A hush descends over the reverent audience as Matheson approaches the microphone and begins to incant beautiful spells in Gaelic. The vast majority of those present have no idea what she’s saying, but even if it were her weekly shopping list it wouldn’t matter. This is enchanting stuff.
Low notes rumble through the venue as the double bass is plucked deftly. At the side of the stage, James Grant’s shimmering guitarwork ascends heavenward, mingling with the dulcet tones of the Gaelic songstress. Overhead the chandelier coruscates as it deflects the mellifluous sounds dissipating into the ornate plasterwork.
Perched atop a set of wedge heels, Matheson chats amiably between songs while the audience listens intently, as a good folk audience should. The band change from a slow lament to a joyful jig, with the keyboard player switching to accordion. The lush, warm sound created by the adroit foursome is a testament to Scotland’s rich folk tradition.
If Burns were alive to hear their arrangement of his poetry, one fancies the bard would be touched by Matheson’s sweet but sonorous tones, breathing new life into his oeuvre. She sings a tale of the cotton mills, and a touching song about her son which is steeped in emotion.
If you like your music snarling, sweaty and parent-unfriendly, you’ll probably be less disposed to Karen Matheson’s sedate folk music. However, even the punkiest of Broadway Baby reviewers would have to admit to being in awe of her ethereal voice.
I may have no idea what she’s singing, but I know it’s hauntingly good, so much so that I feel like Odysseus, tied to the mast in order to hear the blissful song of the Sirens. When we think of the most beautiful languages of the world, we usually envisage French or Greek, and yet in song, Gaelic might just be the bonniest of the lot.
I leave with Matheson’s voice ringing in my ears, and an inclination to refrain from ship sailing lest I be lured onto the rocks by the siren song of an enchantress.