(Originally published in the Journal of Music >)
Lau, the Orcadian word for natural light, is a trio of Kris Drever from Orkney on guitar and vocals, Martin Green from East Anglia on accordion and piano, and Aidan O’Rourke from Oban on fiddle. Each is very connected with his local culture, landscape and people, and together they take rooted, traditional, folk music through various modern modes to see how it withstands the pressure.
What they do with reels, ballads and other traditional forms in their compositions (modestly, they call them tunes, but they resemble classical and jazz pieces more in their form, and they are mostly original compositions) is open them up, pass them around from instrument to instrument, reshape them with unusual harmonies, touches of dissonance, shifts in tempo, with layering, build-ups, and break-downs, to produce dramas, sometimes epic in scale, rather than just a lyrical poem or two.
The music is not meditative or minimalist, though it has ambient/trance moments; and neither is it improvised to any significant degree, though variation is a big part of it. Rather, it is restless, unpredictable, full of surprising twists and turns, and includes a good deal of playfulness and humour. The range of emotions – from serene to wild – in particular pieces is much wider than it would be in our common tune sets. One might think of the more elaborate Martin Hayes-Dennis Cahill ‘suites’. And while there is repetition in the compositions, there is much more development and change on display, and a much greater pitch range employed than there is in most traditional music.
With just a few guitars, two violins, a piano accordion (and a little piano) and voice, using careful sound engineering (by Tim Matthew), a variety of pedals and a Fidil-like inventiveness in how the instruments are played (upstroked guitar, plucked fiddle, percussed accordion etc. etc.) they produce the rich sounds of a small orchestra. The musicianship goes beyond the design of the instruments – there is mastery, of course, but then also a search for something more, something evoking punk or grunge in terms of energy. It struck me as quite a masculine music, with, involuntarily, bands like Redneck Manifesto, Nirvana and even Coldplay coming to mind at different times. Apart from the small matter of how Drever’s voice and the traditional character of the songs he sang sometimes struggled to stand out enough from the powered and occasionally wild accompaniment, this performance lived up to all the expectations their reputation produces.
They are coming back to Ireland in June, and as Green said, thanking the audience: ‘It’s really important to go see stuff or no stuff will happen anymore.’