John McCusker & Heidi Talbot

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I’d previously seen John McCusker as part of the trio McGoldrick McCusker and Doyle at Perth Theatre’s The Monday Night Thing.  At the time I was pretty much unfamiliar with McCusker’s work but I bought a signed copy of ‘Before the Ruin’ which he recorded with Roddy Woomble and Kris Drever.  The album was great and became a bit of a fixture on my car stereo before I lent it to my mate Gareth, who hasn’t given it back yet.  My guess is Gareth really likes it too. 

Anyway, I was really looking forward to seeing John play with a different set of musicians at a different venue.  He was midway through a UK tour with his wife, the Irish folk singer Heidi Talbot, formerly part of the Irish-American supergroup Cherish the Ladies.  The husband and wife duo took the stage followed by Innes White on acoustic guitar and Adam Holmes on electric. 

The first song they play is the title track from Heidi’s 2010 album ‘The Last Star’.  It features a majestic melody courtesy of McCusker on Cittern, wedded to Heidi’s own lyrics sung in beautiful two-part harmony by herself and Innes.  The second track, ‘Love Is The Bridge Between Two Hearts’ is from Heidi and John’s recent crowd-funded album of the same name.  John switches to fiddle for this achingly pretty instrumental, a really simple accompaniment by the guys on guitar and Heidi (on what I think may have been a harmonium) allow the lead instrument to shine.

This is followed by the rousing ‘Billy’s Reel’ in tribute to Scotland’s best-loved comedian and it certainly gets my foot tapping.  Soon it is time for guitarist Adam Holmes to get his moment in the spotlight, singing a Louis Abbott’s part on the song ‘The Loneliest’.  This could be the song of the evening for me with great lead vocals from Heidi and Adam and some exquisite four-part harmonies.  Adam is no slouch in the songwriting department either and he showcases his talents his song ‘Mother Oak’ which has a lazy, drinking song vibe.  Although the arrangement is clearly Celtic it still somehow reminds me of the work of Jason Isbell from The Drive-by Truckers.

the impetus behind ‘Stop Playing the Trumpet’ was the time an audience member snuck his own trumpet into the venue.I remember being impressed with McCusker’s banter when I saw him at Perth Theatre and he doesn’t disappoint tonight, some of the stories behind the songs are worth the price of admission on their own.  The track ‘Calendar Boy’s’ came about when an old English lady picked up a McGoldrick, McCusker, and Doyle record at their merch table and asked, “how much are your calendars?”  And the impetus behind ‘Stop Playing the Trumpet’ was the time an audience member snuck his own trumpet into the venue and thought he could improve the show by improvising along.

‘Angels Without Wings’ is another great song from Heidi Talbot’s solo output. It has a tremendous sense of movement courtesy of a spirited McCusker fiddle part, that climbs and winds around Talbot’s velvety vocal.  This was followed by the lyrical instrumental ‘Leaving Friday Harbour’ which McCusker penned as a young man when he was touring America with The Battlefield Band.   As the end of the night draws to a close John becomes more and more energised, providing percussion on ‘Willow Tree’ by playing his thighs like a snare drum. 

The final track is ‘Under One Sky’ from his 2010 solo album.  Starting gently enough, John, Innes, Adam and Heidi whip it into a frenetic hand clapping, floor stomping affair over the course of its ten-minute running time.  McCusker is an accomplished musician at the very top of his game and he plays his instrument (and the audience!) with skill and verve and as the final note is bowed the audience are already crying out for more.  The band oblige as Talbot downy voice gets us ready for bed with a great version of the lullaby ‘I See the Moon’.  It’s been another great night of music at Birnam Arts and I can't wait till I see the acoustic roots duo Jinski there later in the year. 

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