LIVE REVIEWS FOR CLIAR
Rob Adams, The Herald
What's this? Happy songs? From the Gaelic tradition? Neffer. That's not what we came to hear. We expected woebegone tales of love lost in war, pestilence, interfering, nay downright cruel relatives and amorous ineptness. And, truth be told, we got that too. Not the ineptness. Cliar don't do ineptness. With three of Gaeldom's most appealing voices in its frontline, six voices in all when called upon, and the most delicately, sparingly apposite of accompaniment, the Highlands and Islands supergroup brings you heaven without the inconvenience, as it were, of having to travel to the other side. They're that good. Not that the angelic sound they create makes them angels altogether. This is a group whose fiddle player can tell tales of debauchery on a rock'n'roll scale - and play tunes such as the "Cambridge Caravan Catastrophe" as proof of their authenticity and inspiration. As for the sort of female stalkers their male lead allegedly attracts, the least said, the fewer lawyers' letters. Ultimately though, the real mark of Cliar is in their ability to delve way back into the Gaelic tradition - the songs where even the livestock are left broken-hearted - and make it sound contemporary through the finely chiselled clarity and apparent simplicity of their arrangements, and the sheer quality of their performance. That they do this with a presentational style that alternates between the homely intimacy of a Portree barman holding court and what sounds like the continuation of the band bus joshing on the way to the gig only underlines the drop-dead gorgeousness of their collective endeavours.
It was for Altan a long held ambition coming true: Touring through small venues in the Highlands and Islands. The tour, where Altan were joined by Scottish band Cliar, was made possible through a number of sponsors. The two bands crossed our way when passing through Portree on our honeymoon - no excuse there, this was an opportunity not to be missed! The tour was part of the Scottish Arts Council "Tune Up" scheme, promoting live music in Scotland from home and abroad, while support through the Columba Initiative (its aim is to foster support for the Gaelic language and develop links between Gaelic Scotland and Ireland) allowed the tour to be extended to a number of places in Northern and the Republic of Ireland.
The concert in Portree was part of a highest profile folk music series in Portree's Aros Centre. It was rather fascinating that all announcements during the concert were made bilingually - Gaelic and English. And a good proportion of the audience seem to be Gaelic speakers.
I was not sure what to expect of Cliar. Cliar have been dubbed "Gaelic dream team", and I knew that all of its musicians are top class, and Cliar's CDs are great stuff - however, the CDs are overall quiet, and slightly academic. Experiencing Cliar in live, I soon knew that the "Gaelic dream team" is no overrating - this is a band of the highest possible calibre, a band that understands to combine high quality music and song with good entertainment. Cliar feature three of Scotland's most outstanding Gaelic singers, Maggie MacDonald, Mary Ann Kennedy and Arthur Cormack. Musically, they were joined for this tour by Ingrid Henderson on Harp (who is also a great singer), her brother Allan Henderson on Fiddle (well known through Blazin Fiddles), and finally Ronan Martin on guitar.
Cliar's show was made stunning especially through very smooth interaction, and a great combination of solos and group playing. The solos were often incorporated into sets of tunes where other band members would join, so there was always the feeling that Cliar was playing as one band. The Gaelic songs were enchanting; each of the singers have beautiful voices in their own right, and in combination they form perfect harmony. Cliar were a very difficult act to follow - this is super class performance by super class musicians, taking any audience away into a world of beauty. Again, I wished to be able to listen to Cliar for the rest of the night...
Keith Witham, Hebridean Celtic Festival
Hugely respected Gaelic supergroup Cliar lived up to their reputation tonight as they delivered a set of the highest standard. A good-humoured blend of bitter/sweet Gaelic love songs with the interweaving harmonies from Arthur Cormack, Mary Ann Kennedy and Maggie Macdonald captivated the gathered crowd. Yet it would be wrong to assume this evening was just about Gaelic song. We were also treated to fine sets from Bruce MacGregor (Blazin Fiddles), Ingrid Henderson (harp, piano), all ably backed by Chaz Stewart (Donnie Munro Band). After a well-deserved encore, I declare this festival well and truly open.
Folk-song in general is widely caricatured as a by-word for gloom and lamentation. But within the folk scene itself, Gaelic song in particular is the ne plus ultra of woe. The Highland six-piece Cliar at once embrace and poke fun at this dolorous tradition, for example when translating the title of one archetypically miserable number, It's a Pity I Hadn't Been Born Blind, because then the singer would never have laid eyes on the woman who ruined his life.
At the same time, Cliar set out to present a rather broader picture of their native musical heritage. Their set includes a sizeable proportion of more upbeat material, such as waulking and drinking songs, port a beul and (according to singer Mary Ann Kennedy) all three of the only happy Gaelic love songs in existence.
The vocal numbers led by Kennedy, Arthur Cormack and Maggie MacDonald are also interspersed with a handful of lively tune sets, courtesy of Bruce MacGregor on fiddle, guitarist Ross Martin (standing in for regular member Chaz Stewart) and Ingrid Henderson on piano and clarsach, or Gaelic harp. Perhaps the key characteristic of Cliar's sound is its absence of clutter. Though clearly fashioned with an open ear to contemporary stylings as in some of the rhythmic treatments, or Henderson's choice of piano chords, or the alignment of lead and harmony vocals their arrangements represent only subtle, subsidiary shadings around the central focus on the songs.
Cormack's softly understated, yearning and resonant delivery, with its delicate quivers of vibrato, is, as ever, an especial treat, and the ensemble blend of male and female registers opens up a wonderful spectrum of light and shade, airiness and weight. MacGregor's athletic, rich-toned fiddle playing heads up the instrumental interludes, although Henderson takes a memorable turn at the helm on her clarsach, in a brilliantly lissome, coltishly funky set of jigs.
Edinburgh Evening News
LET'S face it, you can enjoy traditional music more than the twice-a-year allowed by the media calendar - Hogmanay and Burn's Night being the officially sanctioned dates. Now that the last of the one-night-only attractions of the festive season has gone, and Jackie Bird has put her décolletage away for another year, it was a case of normal musical service being resumed at the folk club, courtesy of Cliar and some excellent support sets. It's not every night that there's audience participation in Norwegian, Gaelic and Scots songs.
Third-day-bridal tunes, tonsil twisting Puirt a Beul and north-east bothy song The Strae Mannie, all knocked any last vestiges of January lethargy, and indeed the weather, for six. Cliar have the onerous honour of being hailed as the Gaelic supergroup. Accolades such as this can prove albatross-like, but when the talents of the six members are considered, it's no wonder that Cliar are indeed lauded.
The sound is perhaps best described as comfortably contemporary. The presentation of songs and music is clear and direct: Cliar aren't in the business of avant-garde arrangements. There's no need, since the talented line-up have little to prove . The instrumental backbone - fiddle, clarsach, keyboards and guitar - is perhaps familiar, but with members of Dàimh and Blazin' Fiddles, there's the potential for the crossing of a traditional edge.
Bruce MacGregor's fiddle playing, when let loose in a piece like the skewing, sloping ambridge Caravan Catastrophe, is dynamically enthusiastic, but he can play politely as you like when the tone is gentler. The voices of Cliar - Arthur Cormack, Mary Ann Kennedy and Maggie MacDonald - together create a wonderfully rounded sound which transmits the confidence and vibrancy within this tradition without losing the sensitivity which many of the songs require.
Cliar present songs of love, songs of longing, stark laments. In short, the type of repertoire you might expect from the Gaelic - or more broadly Scottish - singing tradition. But while this is something less than a summary, it also touches on the truth of just why songs endure, be it for decades or for centuries.
Cormack's interpretations of 'S truagh nach d' rugadh dall mi (Oh that I were born blind) and the tragic Nuair a Ràinig mi'm Baile (When I got to the village) were sensitive, and conveyed the love-longing and despair to both the Gaels and non-Gaels in the audience. All the singers make the songs their own, while opening them up to be part of the shared experience. (Don't know any Gaelic? See Cliar and you will!)
Dutiful bardic panegyric was touched upon with MacDonald's version of Orando Dhomhnall gorm og (Song to Young Domhnall Gorm) and a wider political plaid was woven by the inclusion of Clò Mhic Ille Mhìcheil (Carmichael's Cloth). Of course there was an encore. Of course the audience joined in the refrain of Gradh Geal mo Chridh. If you had been there, wouldn't you?
ALBUM REVIEWS FOR CLIAR
The Living Tradition
Cliar, one of the most prominent Gaelic groups to emerge from the Highlands of Scotland in recent years, has created a fantastic collection of songs and tunes most of which even the most up-to-date Gaelic music fan probably won't have heard. In a year that has seen a remarkable number of Gaelic albums, this one stands out both for its unique content and for its engaging singing.
Taking turns on lead vocals, Arthur Cormack, Maggie MacDonald and Mary Ann Kennedy mix the traditional with the contemporary, producing songs that are easy to listen to over and over. Backing them is a slightly altered line-up from Cliar's previous albums, with Hector Henderson, Ingrid Henderson and Ross Martin on all manner of traditional instruments. The inclusion of the Clarsach on many of the tracks lends a gentle air to the songs. The vocals range from stirring and poignant to vibrant and rousing, making the variety of both styles and instruments one of the highlights of the album. Bilingual lyrics are included, as are brief descriptions of the origin of each track.
Tracks of particular note are 'Ho Mo Nighean Donn Bhoidheach' which features wonderful a cappella harmonies, 'Mo Run an na Maraichean/ Kenneth J. MacLeod' with Cormack's strong voice leading the lilting piece and 'Tune Set With Altan' where the legendary Irish group make an appearance. Cliar have set some very high standards for Gaelic groups. This is a fantastic addition to the body of contemporary Gaelic song and a great album to simply listen to and enjoy.
It's been a couple of years of change since the last album but the new line up has emerged stronger than ever, still capable of 'bringing you heaven without the inconvenience, as it were, of going to the other side' (Rob Adams, The Herald). Guitarist, Ross Martin, is now a firmly established member of the line up and newest recruit, Hector Henderson, brings a fresh new sound with pipes and whistle. Grinn Grinn (the word pronounced 'green' means handsome or bonnie) is a smashing CD with Arthur, Mary Ann and Maggie in great voice and the mix of material selected just right for this listener at least! There are good sleeve notes for the songs in both Gaelic and English. The final tune set features Cliar playing alongside mighty Irish band Altan (with whom they toured in 2004).
The Scotsman ****
This leading band has three of the best voices in Gaelic song in Arthur Cormack, Maggie MacDonald and Mary Ann Kennedy, and their close-harmony singing is under-pinned by crisp instrumental arrangements. They've recently swapped the fiddle that was part of their regular line-up for Hector Henderson's whistles and pipes, but cover all bases here by including former member Allan Henderson as a guest alongside guitarist Ross Martin and Ingrid Henderson's clarsach and keyboards
'GUN TAMH' (Macmeanmna Records SKYECD21)
The Living Tradition
That Cliar sail through this world with a haunting albatross of a moniker over their collective shoulder - that of 'Gaelic supergroup' - should come as nothing of a surprise. The band members have Mod gongs aplenty, (if that is any indication of anything), and are amongst the best known and loved performers on the traditional music circuit (if such a thing exists). This release finds them in sparkling form, and deserving of every bit of the acclaim their previous work has brought to their door.
'gun tàmh' is an over-flowing kist of all delights Gaelic and fear-taigh, the wily campaigner Art Cormack, sure knows how to catch the attention of the listener with an opening set that bursts from the speakers with gutsy, swaggering, ebullience. It's all voice and violin, an explosion in a reel factory.
To randomly select one or two of the fine silky strands that are knotted together in this recording, listen to Ingrid Henderson. This writer has written elsewhere of the myriad accompanimental talents of Ingrid Henderson, and 'gun tàmh' finds her in bristling good form once again. Or there's Art's voice, rich in sweet melancholy, inspiring, telling you a story. This is Cliar's best yet and an object lesson in binding the old to the new.
Cliar, a Gaelic band from Scotland, combines some of the outstanding talents from the Scottish music scene. With Maggie MacDonald, Mary Ann Kennedy and Arthur Cormack, it is blessed with three sensitive Gaelic singers. The instrumental side of the band features some of the younger talent of Scotland, with harpist and piano player Ingrid Henderson, Blazin' Fiddles' Bruce MacGregor and guitarist Chaz Stewart. Cliar's repertoire is steeped in Gaelic traditional songs from Scottish Highland traditions. The songs, tastefully accompanied, are rounded up by three sets of tunes. The album has a beautiful range of enchanting slow numbers showcasing the outstanding voices of the three singers, as well as more energetic songs and tunes. A very harmonious album, taking the listeners mind away into day dreams. Without doubt one of the memorable Scottish releases of this year.
The latest album from noted Gaelic group Cliar is Gun Tamh, or "Restless", a good word for a sparkling and feisty collection featuring a truly five-star line-up of Gaelic performers - vocalists Arthur Cormack, Mary Ann Kennedy and Maggie MacDonald, Ingrid Henderson on piano and clarsach, fiddler Bruce McGregor (yes, he of Blazin' Fiddles) and Chaz Stewart on the guitar. Put all this together with a rollicking choice of material - strathspeys, jigs, reels, traditional Gaelic songs and puirt-a-beul, and it all adds up to excitement and entertainment.
'CLIAR' (Macmeanmna Records SKYECD14)
Norman Chalmers, The List
One of the most beautiful sounds in 21st Century Scotland. Norman Chalmers, The List.
When Mary Ann Kennedy e-mailed me and asked if I'd review the new album from her Gaelic band, Cliar, she had no idea we'd be meeting soon. Cliar was one of the featured performers at the 2001 Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, and I was there to cover the week's events. By chance, I had Cliar's CD with me in the car at the time, although I hadn't yet had a chance to listen to it.
I was blown away by Cliar's performance at the Gaelic Roots concert that week. That may have been a bad thing for this review -- Cliar had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, the CD does just that.
Besides Kennedy, who sings and plays clarsach (the Scottish harp), Cliar comprises vocalists Arthur Cormack and Maggie Macdonald and backing vocalists Ingrid Henderson (piano and clarsach), Bruce MacGregor (fiddle) and Chaz Stewart (acoustic, electric and bass guitars).
The recording evokes a sense of joy in the music -- you can tell the singers feel the words they're singing; they're not merely reciting memorized text. Sure, it's in Gaelic, but I didn't find the language barrier to be a problem because their passion was so evident and their enunciation so clear. Of course, it helps that the lyrics -- both the Gaelic and the English translation -- await in the comprehensive insert booklet.
The vocals are uniformly gorgeous and expressive. The musicians, while serving as background in some tracks and sitting out others (waulking songs are often sung a cappella), prove their mettle in various instrumental tracks and song interludes. These aren't second-stringers biding their time as a backup band; they're capable performers who've chosen to add their strength to a primarily vocal band. It adds together for a great package.
I mentioned in my Gaelic Roots review that Cliar's performance evoked Scottish memories more strongly than most music has done for me in the past. Happily, the same is true of the band's debut album, and I recommend it highly.
Jim Love, Inverness Courier
Anyone looking for a definitive example of acoustic music in the Highlands need look no further. This band has it all..
The Living Tradition
Cliar is a Gaelic word pertaining to matters poetical so it seems fitting to wax lyrical about this album.
In its relatively short lifetime the Skye-based MacMeanmna label - under the guidance of Gaelic singer and Fèisean nan Gàidheal Development Officer Art Cormack - has assembled a fine catalogue of mostly Gaelic music but this may well be their best release to date. Subtitled "traditional and contemporary Gaelic song and Highland music" it features Cliar, who are a sextet of singers and musicians. In reality, however, they're akin to a concert party with each member more than capable of virtuoso solo performances. The featured singers are Mary Ann Kennedy, Maggie Macdonald and Art himself, with instrumental input from Ingrid Henderson on piano and clarsach, fiddler Bruce MacGregor and guitarist Chaz Stewart.
Produced by Cliar and Nick Turner at the increasingly popular Watercolour Studios in Ardgour, a lot of work and inspiration has gone into the arrangement of these songs and instrumentals and it's definitely unfair to single out any favourites for there isn't a weak track on the album.
If you thought Gaelic music was dull, boring and tuneless here's an instant cure for your melody malady. The sleeve notes give special thanks to the much maligned Scottish Arts Council for making Cliar a reality; let's hope they can run to a nationwide tour as soon as possible. Excellent stuff!
Excellent stuff - it's definitely unfair to single out any favourites for there isn't a weak track on the album. Each member more than capable of vituoso solo performances.
Travelling Folk, BBC Radio Scotland
The Genuine Article……. three exceptional Gaelic singers integrated with a strong backline of fine musicians. A mature sound, it's tasteful and full of humour and integrity that is part of that sophisticated sound… Good Gaelic songs sung correctly, the words and the phrasing sit beautifully and the CD works just as well as a folk music album as a gaelic one: this will travel the globe.
Will Lamb, Am Paipear
This, their first recording, sets a new benchmark for a primarily acoustic, but modern interpretation of traditional vocal music. Their sensitivity and deep knowledge puts them above the many bands who either copy traditional sources parrot-fashion or sample them tokenistically without appreciating the importance of context. This is an example of a traditional album that goes somewhere new without forgetting where it comes from.