Megan Henderson – Pilgrim Souls: Album Review

Top-notch Chamber folk from Breabach singer and fiddle player, Megan Henderson, sets itself ahead of the pack.

Release date: 21st January 2022

Label: self-released

Formats: CD/digital (bandcamp)

(Artwork by Christine Clark)

Should there ever come a time where you weary as to the need for yet another Celtic-hued work of chamber folk, this is not that time. More specifically, that moment of realisation comes at the forty-second mark on track two of this exquisitely crafted record, as the sound of bowed saw comes in, courtesy Su-a Lee, in on a shimmer of delight. And that is but the tip of a glorious iceberg of chilly hues, as piano, fiddle(s) and mandolin join together in a celebratory and courtly dance across the glen.

Megan Henderson is the classically trained fiddle player for Breabach, those consummate interpreters of a traditionally based yet forward-thinking Scottish music, who offer a more dignified take on the repertoire than their sometimes over-excited and more frantic contemporaries. With dual pipes, guitar and bass to blend in alongside her elegant and roomy style, she is a capable singer in both Scots and Gaelic. For this recording she adds piano to her repertoire, a suite based upon/inspired by the paintings of fellow Fort William native, Christine Clark. Paintings that can “transport us to unknown lands, conveying moments of solitude, love, hope, beauty and loss”, so no pressure there, then! Happily, I can report she succeeds, and some, making this a solo debut well worth slotting alongside those by her bandmates, both individually and collectively.

Enlisting the aforementioned Lee, who also plays cello, are Jack Smedley (Rura) on additional fiddle, Mairi Campbell on viola, Olav Luksengård Mjelva on Norwegian hardanger fiddle, Anna Massie (Blazin’ Fiddles) and Laura-Beth Salter, each on mandolin and Alistair Iain Paterson, on further piano and harmonium. Salter also sings one of the two songs, the other five tracks being instrumental. With the whole piece originally commissioned by Celtic Connections’ New Voices, in 2019, it has only been during last year that her busy schedule allowed any studio recreation of that initial live concert.

The opener, The Dawn Chorus, starts as a delicate unfolding, piano and strings unfurling to beckon in the day, before stepping up into a graceful meander, with an air that carries evanescent hope and aspiration in its wake, the melody lingering. This optimistic start leeches into Flight Of Fancy, and which is an altogether grander affair, with distant echoes of the soundtrack to Exodus in its initial few bars, before the aforementioned musical saw sidles in, with a peal of wracked emotion, weaving about the other instrumentation, as both shadow and guide. Lee, who has worked with artists as varied as Martyn Bennett and Eric Clapton, also holds down the post as principal cellist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. If you had previously thought the saw a novelty item, an amusing sound effect, prepare to have your preconceptions smashed, she shows it to be capable of a lot more nuance. Switching to cello mid-track, the grouped strings face-off against some blocks of piano chording, making for a memorable duel, carrying the tune to its abrupt conclusion.

Pilgrim Souls, the title track, is the first song and is given to Salter, whose rounded tones contain no small heft of emotion in this love story, the lyrics in part from W.B. Yeats, with the sense of longing almost palpable. A gaunt piano backing frames the tune, it needing little other embellishment, Henderson’s harmonies apart, which grace the second half of this beguiling piece. Only towards the end do the massed strings swoop in, triumphantly, mandolins trilling over and above. Delightful. The Composer now slots in, as the second song, this time care of Henderson, a Gaelic song that opens all of a shimmer, strings fluttering over the piano before the fiddle strides buoyantly out. Her vocals are a rare and haunting sound, more wistful even than Salter’s, with a keening nature that imprints. This is simply stunning, each track building on, up and up, no sense of any backpedal.

Perhaps needing a change in mood, it is harmonium that beckons in the longest track, The Empty Chair, a more spartan construction, that drops the temperature maintaining both quality and momentum. Mjelva’s hardanger, which also graced the earlier Breabach album, 2016’s Astar, has a rich sound, midway between viola and cello, and is especially effective on this and the following two tracks, the only instances of any overdubbing across this record, the rest all performed live in the studio. With a gentle and mournful reminder of Going Home, Mark Knopfler’s theme from Local Hero, this too lingers long after the music fades.

With the counterpoint between the sombre drone of further harmonium, and an almost jaunty fiddle, Coming Home gives a sense of anticipation, pizzicato strings building the heightening expectation, the cello and viola swooping in matched melody. With an almost baroque feel, this feels like an elegant and unravelling dance. Which leaves only the final track, Ascending, a complex agitation of piano phrases, perhaps closer to jazz than folk, if still with that chamber feel. The ensemble drop in seamlessly, the whole then becoming led into an ever more lively fiddle-led section, gradually becoming a thrall of unison playing, ending, appropriately enough, on a high.

Megan Henderson may be the last of many Breabach members to come up with a solo recording, but the wait has no way diminished the satisfaction it gives to be hearing it. And, in what may sometimes seem a crowded field of all too many Scottish artists, all jostling for similar attention, she really is one that deserves that attention. Highly recommended.

Megan showcases Pilgrim Souls, in an on, off and now on again special performance, once more at Glasgows’s Celtic Connections, this Friday, 21/1/22, at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Here’s the opening track, The Dawn Chorus:

Megan Henderson online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Bandcamp

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