Birmingham performance with Aly Bain

MOJO Magazine

Martin Longley


Savourna Stevenson & Aly Bain
Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham


HOISTED UP ON HER HIGH STOOL, precariously perched beside her Celtic Harp, Stevenson begins her quipping, informative talk-through, adopting just the right balance between concert formality and pisstake. She’s at the forefront of the current harping revival, playing with the expected Swarbrick, Carthy and Tabor as well as the unexpected Toumani Diabate and The Bhundu Boys, displaying a keenness for fusing worldwide ethnic traditions. Playing solo at first, Stevenson shows off her dextrous technique, flipping and tweaking the semitone levers on her amplified harp, changing key and making mystery alterations to her impressive sound.
She’s joined by double bassist Brian Shiels and drummer Mike Travis, effectively becoming a jazz harp trio, their sensitive backing sympathetic to the ethereal quality of Stevenson’s compositions, Shiels lyrically bowing or velvet-thumbing precise lines, Travis having a subtle touch, playing quietly when needed, but hinting at reserve power when tunes reach a climax. Stevenson’s verbal confidence is matched by her assured playing: detailed, shimmering and glacial, she always seems to know exactly what’s going to happen next, never straying off too far into the more improvisational reaches of jazz.
So, along comes Aly Bain … A Boy from the Lough for 20 years, he’s become soothing of an authority on world fiddling styles, as well as being a master proponent. Bain peeks out from stage right and scampers on to his seat, immediately disrupting any attempts at order: fine-tuning has fiddle, bantering with Stevenson, forgetting the names of tunes and concluding: what the hell, what do names matter anyway? Frazzling under the relentless stage lighting, his electric fan proceeds to underpin the rest of the set with intermittent speedboat noises. This stick-through-the-spokes approach lends a more informal bearing, but doesn’t detract from the rich complexity of the compositions or their spirited execution.
In celebration of the Robert Louis Stevenson centenary, the duo have been working on Clyde to California, a suite of pieces that corral bluegrass and Cherokee elements into an already diverse palette. This is the piece with which they seem most familiar, during which the more disparate elements of folk fiddle plus jazz harp trio achieve their most satisfying and exhilarating blend..