Saltfishforty & Basco – Celtic Connections – The Mackintosh Church, January 21, 2023
Written by celtic music radio on January 23, 2023
When a concert’s support act is as good as Basco – a four-man trad-based band based in Denmark – you know you’re in for a treat.
Hal Parfitt Murray (fiddle, mandolin, vocals) is Scots by birth Australian by upbringing, and Ale Carr (cittern) is Swedish. The other half of the band, Andreas Tophoj (violin/viola) and Anders Andersen (accordion/trombone,) come from the Danish polka and waltz tradition.
All those influences and more filter into the maelstrom of styles that fuse to make one of the most individual sounds I’ve heard. I’ve characterised them as “trad-based” but maybe “progressive trad” would be a better label as they’re not afraid to get into some deep musical waters – Hal Murray joked at one point “We’ve all been to the Conservatory you know.”
There were driving sets of instrumental pieces – some recognisably traditional, some very accomplished band compositions – that had the Mackintosh Church audience stamping their feet and clapping along, plus some fine singing that included old favourites like Sir Patrick Spens.
The high point of their set was a self-composed memorial march (it’s a Danish musical tradition to commemorate lost friends) in honour of a UK musical emigré to Denmark The John Hart March. This was followed by a spine-tingling a cappella rendition of Three Mothers , the band’s adaptation of an old Scots song about mothers anxiously awaiting their sons’ return from a stormy sea.
There was a touch of added drama as The John Hart March finished with Hal Parfitt Murray playing a sweet evocative solo in the middle of the central aisle where he was joined by the other musicians for Three Mothers. Not a dry eye in the kirk. Their finale was a storming tune-set given a standing ovation.
How could Saltfishforty follow that? The answer is: magnificently. The billing said “Saltfishforty and Guests” and true to that, Dougie Montgomery and Brian Cromarty had a four-piece band behind them, while Siobhan Miller joined the ensemble for a couple of songs. Straight into driving sets of jigs and reels that, again, gave the audience free rein to help out on the percussive side.
Dougie Montgomery wins the prize as the person most enjoying himself during the evening. His virtuoso fiddle-playing was accompanied at all times by a smile of pure ecstasy, mirrored by more than a few of the crowd.
A goodly amount of humour was also on display. Dougie introduced one instrumental piece – The Queen of Burray – as being in honour of his late mother who had won the title as a young woman. He let that settle in and then remarked that Burray, being a small island with a small population, there were only 3 entrants.
He and Brian also reminisced about their schooldays when Brian used to chase Dougie round the playground but never caught him. There was a pause, then Brian looked at Dougie’s, shall we say, less-than-svelte figure and said: “Mind, I think Ah’d catch thee noo.”
While I love Saltfishforty’s instrumental expertise, for me it’s the songs that let them explore a wider range of moods. They opened the singing with a cheery wee number I hadn’t heard before called Tea and Toast – an easy hookline that the audience, who were definitely in a singalong mood, quickly picked up.
A tip of the hat was given to fellow Orcadian Ivan Drever with a forceful version of his Ballad of Pirate Gow. I was also pleased to hear the inclusion of Yellow and Blue from the lads’ Netherbow album.
Another self-composition from that album Ring on Her Hand – about Margaret, the Maid of Norway, who died in Orkney on her way to be crowned Queen of Scots – saw Siobhan Miller make a fine contribution on lead vocals.
As seems to be a tradition on The Mackintosh Church stage, the support act joined the headliners for a final song that required the audience to raise their glasses, real or imaginary, and sing in praise of ale. There then followed two encore sets, involving both bands, and another standing ovation. Great music, great singing, great entertainment.