A nomination for Scottish Folk Band of the Year in the 2011 Scots Trad Music Awards will tell you that the RACHEL HAIR TRIO are a formidable bunch. For those who have already caught the RHT bug it would have come as no surprise to hear that these rising stars are receiving the plaudits on a national level. For those of you less familiar you can now whet the appetite following the launch of their new album No More Wings. The 11-track compilation is an exciting melange of tunes, airs & songs influenced by not only their native land but also Galicia, Sweden, Brittany, Wales, Devon and even the U.S. A first listen to the album will certainly tell you that this is something very different. Exciting. Rousing. Pioneering
The band’s eponymous character is non-other than leading Harpist and champion of the cause Rachel Hair. To say that she plays Harp is a complete misunderstanding. Since the age of ten the Highland musician hasn’t put the instrument down and as a result of nurturing an obvious talent she has broken the mould and re-cast the Harp-playing form in Clapton-esque territory. A true pioneer.
There’s an audible traditional influence to Hair’s work, evidence perhaps of her early years studying the Clarsach in Ullapool. The west coast port may have left an indelible mark of influence in her understanding and appreciation of the Harp tradition, but the character and feel of her musical output is one of a contemporary world, flush with influences of jazz and splashes of colour from around the world. Indeed the new album could be best described as a musical journey from her traditional roots to bolder destinations and beyond. Fans of cross-over pioneers Flook and Beoga would appreciate this trio’s work with its similar drive, enthusiasm and energy.
Rachel, taking a breather from a busy gigging schedule, reflects on her influences. “After leaving the Highlands to study and work in both Edinburgh and Glasgow I found myself surrounded by a wealth of musical styles” says Hair. “The buzz of city life can generate an energy of its own and playing the pubs and clubs was a fantastic education. Studying music at college also brought me into contact with like-minded musicians, passionate about their craft and extremely dedicated. There was music everywhere in the college. I could hear soulful Jazz notes from the room next door, then rootsy styles from down the hall. I absorbed everything and incorporated those influences into my own compositions.”
Travelling with Hair on this journey are two likewise passionate and proficient compatriots in the forms of guitarist & vocalist Jenn Butterworth and double bassist Euan Burton. Both musicians provide not only a solid and uplifting canvas for Hair to apply creative strokes, but they also lend an edge to the tunes & airs on No More Wings with Butterworth providing equal measures of endearment and solemnity through her voice on several tracks.
“Jenn and myself have studied and worked together for quite a few years now” continues Hair. “Two years ago we persuaded Euan to lend his talents and hence the trio was born. So much has happened in such a short time for us with touring and recording. It’s hard work but we’re delighted with the progress.”
No More Wings provides a little something for all palates. The title track, plus later tracks Cancro Cru and Home and Happy are bright summery airs delivered with poise and accuracy to please the ear. Harsh Feb Reels sees Hair’s harp riffs undulate with Butterworth’s impeccably timed guitar strokes, evidence of well-defined and thoughtful composition. The clever musicianship continues with Fest Noz no. 17’s subtle chord changes and delectable interaction from the harpist.
The Eccentric’s Emporium is a stand-out track, particularly for Hair’s trance-like contribution. The piece also sees Euan Burton make the most of his fretless instrument with jazzy bass runs and clever control of the fret board. “We also had contributions from saxophonist Fraser Fifield and percussionist Signy Jacobsdottir who helped lift this track onto a new plain” says Hair. “We were also lucky to have the talents of producer Angus Lyon, who also played electric piano and accordion on several tracks. We felt like we had to lift our game and thankfully everything gelled for us in the studio.” Indeed you get a sense that the musicians are enjoying this track as it flows and ebbs. Truth is that there’s complexity, structure and style in abundance, an indication perhaps that The Eccentric’s Emporium has not been an overnight composition.
Three songs, sung with charm and vibrancy by Butterworth, help to add an extra dimension to the album. Her self-penned Island, together with Cyril Tawney’s Grey Funnel Line and Jesse Winchester’s My Songbird, serve the trio well as credit to their diversity in musicianship. In an album of delightful charms there’s one track that really steals the limelight. Swedish, a playful and uplifting tune, is the one most likely to register as signature anthem for the Rachel Hair Trio. The album exits with The Birthday Jigs, again evidence that Rachel Hair’s acclaim has not come too soon. Subtle key changes and dexterous instrumentation leave the listener with full appreciation of who this band really is.
“With gigs coming up later in the UK, Europe and North America it looks like a busy year for us” claims Rachel. “We’re very proud of the new album and look forward to promoting it in the coming months.” We can’t wait Rachel. Catch them if you can. More at www.rachelhair.com.
Irish Music Magazine, Eddie Creaney (July 2012)