Rachel Hair, hailing from Ullapool in the inordinately beautiful north-west of Scotland, is a young and gifted exponent of the clarsach (Scottish harp) who first came onto my radar almost a decade ago with her unpretentious and sensitively configured debut CD Hubcaps and Potholes, which did a lot to convince unbelievers of the potential and strength of the clarsach as a solo instrument. Over the course of two further albums, Rachel has continued to deliver satisfyingly substantional performances of a wide range of tune-based experiences, drawing these from Irish as well as Scottish traditions and even wider afield. Rachel’s third release (2012’s No More Wings) was a Trio format record, on which she was joined by guitarist/singer Jenn Butterworth and double bassist Euan Burton; with some other musicians in tow, the album took her music into jazzier climes, but still remained a bewitching and intimate experience. Now Rachel’s gone back to basics with Trì, reverting to the strict trio lineup with no embellishments and taking the further brave step of producing the disc herself.
For me, there’s always been something quite special about Rachel’s harpistry, a deftness and eloquence that truly compliment the nifty muscularity of her playing. As befits the character of her instrument, there’s a delicate, airy ambience to the recording too, but this does not in any way betoken a lack of substance. Subtle shadings and dynamic felicities abound, and there’s a genial interplay between the musicians’ parts that only comes with absorption in each other’s talents with the trio’s latest recruit, double bassist Cameron Maxwell, whose empathetic use of bowing is striking. A trademark of Rachel’s own playing has always been her delightful use of syncopation, offsetting her sprightly fingerwork, and although this is especially evident on the opening set (which sports a Manx slip jig for its finale) there’s also a natural spring in the step of the animated Tea Towel Polka, the strathspey Tobar Nan Cean and its attendant reel, and the more irregular measures of The Marching Gibbon (a tune by jazz pianist Tom Gibbs) and Cameron’s invigorating portrait of a border terrier (The Doctor) which capers off into a Norwegian rundtom.
As with Rachel’s previous records, the new disc includes several of her own compositions, the pick of which are the inspirational Tune For Esme (lovingly dedicated to a sadly-departed young harp player) and the live favourite Starry-Eyed Lads. Further continuity with the earlier Trio album is provided by Jenn’s allocation of three vocal tracks. There’s the self-penned Angel, which often features in the group’s live gigs; a version of the Gaelic song My Darling Fair One; and a heartfelt account of Allan Taylor’s Roll On The Day, the insistent guitar rhythms of whose setting might be thought to conjure the ticking of the clock of destiny for the sufferer.
For those listeners to whom a largely harp-centric disc won’t seem a particularly exciting prospect, I’d say think again and give this one a spin; it’s pretty far removed from the stereotype of insubstantial, lightweight background music that the harp image sometimes tends to convey.
David Kidman, Stirrings