September 2020 Album of the Month : Rura : Live at the Old FruitmarketReleased : 11 September 2020
Any live album faces a hard task - recreating in sound alone the energy and engagement of a complex sensory experience.
Live at the Old Fruitmarket was recorded in February, at the end of Celtic Connections 2020. A first listen is haunted by what has happened in the world since - not least the loss of the rest of the year's expected cultural events.
But, because of Rura's collective joie de vivre and musicianship, the recording is still a joyous triumph - a fierce celebration of an extraordinary folk band's first decade together.
For the night Rura's current four strong line-up - Steven Blake (pipes, keys), Jack Smedley (fiddle) David Foley (flute, bodhran) and Adam Brown (guitar) - was extended by a house band of rare talents, including Ali Hutton, multi-instrumentalist Finlay MacDonald and James Lindsay (Breabach). The band's former singer-songwriter Adam Holmes and first guitarist Chris Waite also returned to the fold.
The set-list was wide-ranging - the eleven tracks on the CD sketch over all three studio albums Rura have released - Break It Up (2012), Despite the Dark (2015) and the instrumental In Praise of Home (2018).
The performance was captured in vivid detail - enough to make listening an immersive experience, kindling a sense of the communion between musicians and audience that makes a live gig special.
Hit play, and the impact is immediate.
Opening track Catriona's builds from a fast heart-beat bodhran pulse into a fluent, gleeful flute and fiddle gambol. Steven Blake's pipes then take the spotlight for Dark Reel - seven minutes of gliding, meditative folk alchemy and verve.
With the audience already enlivened, two 'memory' songs, split by an effervescent reading of Day One, showcase the heights of Rura's on-stage potency.
First, In Praise of Home features the spoken-word recollections of Jack Smedley's grandfather, James Russell. The music brilliantly evokes the feeling of returning to a deeply familiar place.
In contrast, Day One is an incendiary instrumental, led by Smedley's possessed, euphoric fiddle.
Then, poignant recordings of David Foley's grandmother Sheila Litteljohn frame the uplifting, pastoral I'll Never Forget.
Further high points are reached when Adam Holmes brings two of his songs to the party. The crowd greets a soulful reading of Mary with a cheer of delight, as it well it might. Later, Weary Days is simply luminous.
The rest of the album is equally exalted.
A dreaming whistle tune from Ali Hutton leads into The Glorious 45, David Foley's blissful, fast tempo celebration of those who voted for independence in the 2014 Scottish Referendum.
Piper Finlay MacDonald wrote and plays on Elliot's - which starts at a stately pace, with a lilting fiddle part, gaining momentum as MacDonald's pipes echo the fiddle's melody.
The encore is outstanding, as Rura deliver the gently hued Horizons Part I - an expressive cloud-like drift of fiddle and keyboard - then Horizons Part II for a speeding, cartwheeling, full-ensemble finale.
Starved of live music, there is nothing to do but listen and repeat; Live at the Old Fruitmarket is an exceptional recording of a phenomenal folk band at the peak of their powers - and for once, with a little imagination added, almost as good as being there yourself.