LAU – Roots Unearthed, Lefel 3, St David’s Hall, Cardiff: February 8, 2016
Exceptional fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, master guitarist and singer Kris Drever and keyboard visionary Martin Green brought the Republic of Lau-land to the Roots Unearthed stage when they presented their brand-new album, The Bell That Never Rang; six tracks of freewheeling and freeform artistry and electronics which created a brilliant rainbow of spectacular sound. The Lefel 3 Lounge was crowded with Lau fans, who braved Storm Imogen to see and hear the trio, and they were treated to musical fireworks of the highest order.
Lau might be only three musicians, but what musicians they are; Aidan, Kris and Martin fill the spaces in between, reminiscent of a symphony orchestra or of a soaring rock band. They are possessed with so much power, so much commitment, so much flare, so much vision. Think back to the Edinburgh sessions a good few years ago, when fiddle, guitar and accordion blended so well that Lau was born and the trio decided to go on the road.
Singer-songwriter Jess Morgan warmed up the audience with her smiles and chat – and then Lau strode on stage to a digital, hypnotic beat and launched straight into ‘Tiger Hill’, from the new album. Despite controlling the electronics, Martin played no less than two instruments: the accordion and synthesiser, which prominently proclaimed: “I love the NHS”, an affection which is fiercely growing now that voters realise that Hunt and the Government are intent on destroying the care services that the populace regards so much.
The stage was festooned with soft lamps and lights; Lau is an Orcadian word meaning ‘natural light’, which represents the musicians’ divergent paths. Kris was born in Kirkwall, Orkney, located to Edinburgh and now he has moved to Shetland. Aidan comes from Oban on the Argyll coast, born to Scots and Irish parents; the family went to the nearby island of Seil, until Aidan moved to Edinburgh and joined Blazin’ Fiddles. Martin comes from East Anglia and has worked with Eliza Carthy, Joan Baez and Linda Thompson and produced an Opera North show featuring Becky Unthank. His work has been described as “explosive”, and it was this mind-jarring art this he showed to the crowd – incredible fingers moving so fast to the full range of the accordion, exploring and probing synthetic sounds to shock and delight the audience and move them as well. Kris’s territory was his clear, strong voice and his artful guitar, and Aidan really contributed with his sparkling, beautiful fiddle, which danced, sang and showered us with brilliant notes.
Lau never subscribed to narrow pigeon-holes which define the origin of the music or even the genre; Aidan’s fiddle has flashes of Celtic originality and ingenuity, but as soon as the audience tries to grab it, he darts away like a butterfly. Lau takes the listeners by the hand and leads us into a myriad of dreamy soundscapes; however, some of Martin’s more daring experiments, where he explored the noises the instruments can be capable of making, jolted the crowd back to reality. ‘Midnight Feast’, one of the late Lal Waterson’s unique and well-loved compositions, was transformed into a work of great beauty and stark grandeur, while ‘Ghosts’ conjured up ancient lands and the generations who called them their own.
The prestigious Glaswegian winter festival Celtic Connections commissioned Lau to compose a significant work, and ‘The Bell That Never Rang’ is the 17-minute title piece. This verse remembers the four miracles of Glasgow’s patron saint, Mungo: “Here is the bird that never flew, Here is the tree that never grew; Here is the fish that never swam, Here is the bell that never rang.” The bell, which no longer exists, is thought to have been brought from Rome by St Mungo, and it was used in services and to mourn the dead. A replacement was cast in 1641 and is displayed in the People’s Museum near Glasgow Green. ‘The Bell That Never Rang” is Lau’s tour-de-force and thoroughly deserving of Scotland’s first city.
The inevitable encore happened, with the crowd shouting for more. Lau duly obliged with ‘Far From Portland’, the eighth piece they had performed in a concert lasting over an hour. Lau mesmerised and delighted many fans – but the dark clouds are looming. Music and the arts – and, indeed, the Roots Unearthed series – are vital in this capital city of Wales; but they are looking very uncertain, following Chancellor Osborne’s axing of much-needed services. Cameron’s Government has got four years to go – and the black, dismal days are only just starting.