Breabach at Otley Courthouse

The team at Otley Courthouse has a knack of consistently bringing the finest folk musicians to town – it is without doubt one of the best venues in Yorkshire for traditional music. On Sunday, it was traditional Scottish band Breabach’s turn to fill every available inch of space with a swirling wall of sound in a gig backed by Saltaire Live; Highland bagpipes, flute, whistle, fiddle and guitar blended brilliantly as the band powered their way through material from their debut album ‘The Big Spree’ and from their soon-to-be-recorded follow-up album. What stood out during the Otley gig was the sheer quality of the tunes and songs, and the superb standard of the musicianship. These are young, vibrant, award-winning musicians, and they hurl their tunes at you with such attack and aplomb that you barely have chance to draw breath.

Breabach has long been attracting the eyes and ears of festival organisers, especially in England. Rightly so, for this is a band that got the recipe exactly right straight from the off. I’ve seen the band wow audiences abroad too, in particular at Lorient’s Festival Interceltique in Brittany.

There was a change in the four-piece band’s line-up for the evening. Established band member Donal Brown (piper/flautist) was unable to take time off work for the English leg of Breabach’s tour, which actually says quite a lot about the poor financial rewards of being a full-time folk musician, when some of its best practitioners have to hold down a full time job as well as play! Donal was ably replaced by Lewis-born musician James Duncan Mackenzie, proving himself a superb stand-in.

Donal is famed for his onstage dancing as well as his piping, so unfortunately the Otley crowd missed out on this treat. However, James’ playing blended beautifully with Patsy Reid’s distinctively percussive, brightly lyrical fiddle, Calum MacCrimmon’s inspired piping and whistle-playing, and Ewan Robertson’s superb, rhythmic guitar accompaniment. The band thundered their way through strathspeys, jigs and reels composed by Scotland’s best composers, living and dead – fantastic traditional tunes like The Cockerel in the Creel, Gordon Duncan’s Davy Websters, and Calum’s intriguingly-named ‘The Shetland Turtle!’ The pace of the music slowed down occasionally to showcase Ewan and Patsy’s fine voices, allowing the audience to participate in well-known songs including Matt McGinn’s ‘Rolling Hills of the Borders.’ Overall though, Breabach’s sound is huge, bursting with energy, and there were few who sat absolutely still during the gig. I spoke to the band during the interval, and they commented how much they loved playing for English audiences. Their enjoyment in taking this fantastic music out to an appreciative audience is both palpable and genuine.

If the band comes back to Otley again (and I’ve no doubt they will), then do yourself a favour and go and see them – and keep your eye open for the other superb music coming up at The Courthouse.

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