Review of Birl-Esque, March 2018

Renowned chef Jamie Oliver modestly quipped in his first cookery shows “It’s not me, it’s the food!”

Whilst there is an element of truth in what the Naked Chef said, we know that that is only part of the story.

So it is with this delightful album by Eilidh Shaw and Ross Martin recorded in the studio at the Gaelic College in Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

They let the tunes speak for themselves with minimal tampering or effects resulting in a refreshingly honest recording of some well known tunes played up and down the land in sessions and clubs.

It can be a brave thing to do particularly on a CD where there is no place to hide, but then this pair have no fear having been part of an ever intensifying traditional music scene over the past 20 years or so. The skill with which they stroll through the tunes has been seasoned over countless gigs and sessions with some of the best and brightest musicians around.

Opening with a playful rendition of Aonghas Grant’s hornpipe The Westcoaster (is it me or is there a nod to the Wombles hidden in there?) before easing into a couple of well controlled Marches as the duo start to turn up the heat with Damo’s Reels, a couple of tunes written by the very talented Damian Helliwell.

Ross demonstrates his understated prowess on the guitar in a quite beguiling Mo Mhathair and jaunty Paddy’s Rickle Bridge and Eilidh’s deft fiddle skills are always on show.

Sandwiched between a Gaelic waltz that comprises two Elvis Presley numbers and a pared down cover of Bruce Springteen’s Dancing in the Dark (yes, that took me by surprise) is a set of excellent Pipe Reels that will get the blood pumping.

A standout track is Eilidh’s The Lines of Time, a quite beautiful song about an aging couple, which begs the question why is this the only self penned number on the album? Hopefully a follow up album will cure that omission.

We can hope that it won’t take another 15 years.

Kenny Graham, Scottish Field Magazine


Review of Birl-Esque, March 2018

A mixture of languor, insouciance and sultry ennui runs through this recording, reminding me of the performance by Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles. Eilidh’s fiddling is just as captivating, intense and personal, with the same feeling that the music must out and the audience is purely incidental.

There’s no rush or fuss on The Westcoaster or John D Burgess, great highland tunes played with a relaxed swing. The Sound of Sleat and Millburn are reels I associate more with Edinburgh fiddler John Martin, but even in his Easy Club days he rarely achieved a more laid back feel that Eilidh’s fiddle here. Mo Mhathair is pure Gaelic melody, and the two Elvis waltzes which follow it are somehow completely in keeping with the blue suede vibe of Shaw and Martin’s music.

It’s not all fiddle on Birl-Esque. Ross fingerpicks several pieces on guitar with a similar swagger, and Eilidh sings two slow gentle songs: one of her own, and one of Bruce Springsteen’s, with little to choose between them in my ears.

The pace does pick up for a set of reels including the pipe band competition classic Dolina MacKay which gets the bow driving into the high strings, and for a pair of tunes by Eigg mandolin virtuoso Damian Helliwell. There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, but I’m not going to scramble after it. The guitar accompaniment is essential in maintaining the mood, and adds depth as well as rhythm.

This CD has a surprisingly full sound for a duo, even with a bit of guest bass and drums from the intriguingly named Bracadale Rhythm Gentlemen. If you like your fiddle on the cool side, and still have fond memories of the bands who first put riffs to reels and blues backing to bagpipe marches, you’ll dig this album. If you’re too young to remember that far back but get a buzz out of Shooglenifty and the Poozies, you’ll love Birl-Esque too.
© Alex Monaghan

Review of Birl-Esque, November 2017

‘Shaw and Martin have appeared on over 100 recordings between them, as well as being current members of The Poozies (Eilidh) and Dàimh (Ross). After 15 years together, they finally decided to make an album while their kids were at school. The logistics were complicated, as there was a 40-minute ferry ride between the studio (at the Gaelic College in Skye) and the school drop-off (Morar). But on this set of toe-tappers and thoughtful airs, they make the complex and turbulent appear effortless and smooth.

The CD opens with the vamping of a gypsy swing guitar, whereupon a lone fiddle wanders in, jauntily, setting the tone for the release. They include some pipe tunes to establish the pedigree, but they also meander into other territory. There is fancy guitar on a set of hornpipes, a lovely arrangement of Mo Mhathair, and a fine set of waltzes from tunes made famous by Elvis (Presley, not Costello…). I Can’t Help Falling In Love works especially well. It all ends brilliantly, with a version of Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark, along with a dandy languid fiddle line that washes over the listener. Since this is a duo release, the couple relies on variation in arrangement and trading off leads to maintain the interest.

Overall, there is a relaxed and homey atmosphere to the CD. Despite the sometimes-rough ferry rides to the studio, Shaw and Martin sound like a relaxed couple at home, playing a few tunes to calm the kids after a day of excitement at school.’

Ivan Emke, Living Tradition Magazine


Review of Birl-Esque, December 2017

‘The surprising thing about Eilidh Shaw and Ross Martin’s first album together isn’t so much that it took them 15 years of living and playing together to get round to recording it as that they travelled over to the studio at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye to do so.

The result of these trips give every impression that they might have got the fire on in their kitchen in Morar and set a tape running instead, so comfortable with each other do Shaw’s fiddle and voice and Martin’s guitar sound. Long years with folk groups The Poozies and Daimh respectively have given their playing character and the mostly instrumental tracks variously swing, march, reel and waltz with a conversational air as Martin provides the relaxed energy that probes Shaw’s unadorned phrasing and attention to the melody.

Shaw’s song The Lines of Time, although written about an older couple, emphases this pair’s feeling of easy togetherness and while most of the material is Highland in origin, Are You Lonesome Tonight and Can’t Help Falling in Love’s appropriation as a Gaelic waltz medley and Shaw’s soft intoning of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark add to the Highland charm.’

Rob Adams, The Herald.


Article/Interview with Eilidh and Ross, January 2018

For Ross Martin (Daimh) and Eilidh Shaw (The Poozies), the timing had never been quite been right. But now, with the release of their debut album together – Birl-esque – that has all changed.

A beautifully nuanced collection of traditional tunes from the Lochaber area where the couple live, coupled with some stunning and unexpected cover versions, such as the Elvis Waltzes and a version of Dancing in the Dark that will have the hairs on your arms standing up, Birl-esque has been a long time in the making.

Why now, though?

“We were both part of a band called Harem Scarem for 10 years or so,” guitarist Martin explains. “We made three albums together and did a lot of touring so we had plenty of opportunity to vent our musical ideas during that time. The band had a mini tour around Berlin organised but it became apparent as the time grew near that the dates were going to clash with every member of the band, apart from myself and Eilidh, giving birth. We valiantly offered to do the tour ourselves rather than cancel – mostly out of guilt as we had cancelled the same tour the previous year because Eilidh was having a baby – and that was how we made the jump into playing as a duo. Another 10 years of talk finally resulted in us recording an album.”

However, Shaw, one of Scotland’s most mesmerising fiddlers, recalls that the pair had not stopped playing music together,

“Since moving back to the Highlands we’d always played a lot of ceilidhs together and it was great when our kids got to an age where they didn’t mind being dragged along to stuff and could happily take care of themselves while we did our job. They’d come to the ceilidhs and have a few dances then curl up on the stage for a sleep when they got tired. We realised if they could handle a ceilidh on Eigg they could probably handle a world tour.”

Of course, for busy musicians with two children – and two bands – to look after, not to mention various teaching commitments, time is the real issue.

And it took an ingenious ruse to make the album happen.

“It was difficult to pin down any time to plan or organise it so in the end we did everything backwards, so that there was no way out,” says Shaw. We organised the tour that would coincide with the release of the album, then we booked the studio, then we applied to Creative Scotland for some funding to help pay for the studio, then we realised we’d better decide what we were going to play. Luckily going to the studio involved a 40-minute ferry trip to Skye so that gave us some borrowed time each day.”

There are a couple of tunes on the album penned by Aonghas Grant, the famous left-handed fiddle player of Lochaber – to give him his full name – and Shaw’s teacher. It is clear he has been a huge influence on her. His music sits alongside that of sometime collaborator Damian Helliwell and traditional marches and reels. And, of course, Elvis and Bruce Springsteen.

How did that come about?

“When our first child was born someone gave us a lovely present of a CD called ‘Elvis for Babies’,” says Shaw. “It was all his songs but played on xylophones and triangles. I know it sounds horrific but it was actually very nice and inspired me to play them in a ‘last waltz at the ceilidh’ kind of style.”

And Springsteen?

“Ross has always been really into Bruce Springsteen so I just learnt that song to impress him, but I can’t sing that fast,” adds Shaw. “We played around with it slowed down over a few drams in the house one night and it’s as much a surprise to me as anyone that it’s now on the album!”

The pair celebrated the release of the album with a short set of dates, which Martin explains is just the first leg in a world tour.

“We did 11 gigs that covered all four corners of the known world – from Eyemouth to Orkney and Elgin to Ullapool,” Martin says. “We are currently on a world tour, it’s just broken up into different stages. The first was of course the Scottish tour we just did, the next leg is scheduled for the kids’ Easter Holidays and kicks off in Las Vegas in April and then takes in Arizona and Utah. Then the plan is some European stuff in the summer and possibly Australia at the very end of the year. We have done quite a few one-off gigs as a duo over the last few years but we never had a run before, so it was really good to be able to develop material and presentation. The latter was particularly beneficial as we are both used to playing with larger groups so having to get comfortable carrying the show with only two people was more of a challenge.”

Before that, however, there is the small matter of the world’s largest winter music festival.

Celtic Connections has been at the heart of Scotland’s folk revival, as well as being the one highlight in an otherwise miserable post-festive month.

BOTH Shaw and Martin are preparing for a busy period as the festival kicks off, with a sold-out Birl-esque gig on January 20, supporting the Friel Sisters at St Andrews in the Square.

Martin will be performing with Maeve Mackinnon at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 4, ahead of the release of her new album Stri, which features a plethora of special guests.

It is one of the great traditions of Celtic Connections that musicians get the chance to play with so many of their contemporaries – which Martin clearly enjoys.

“I love it,” he says. “I learn so much when I play with musicians that operate at the level these guys do. There were a few years there where I had a lot of work as a session musician. I’d get sent a bunch of mp3s and some flight details then learn the songs, get on the plane and hit the gig! It was a massive learning curve and hugely satisfying.

“I also have a couple of concerts with [piper] Finlay MacDonald. It’s always great to play with Finlay, he has a great attitude to life and music and his bagpipe chat is almost as good as his actual playing.”

And then there’s the wee matter of a rather special Daimh gig on January 28 to celebrate the anniversary of the Eigg buyout.

It’s a subject close to Arisaig-native Martin’s heart and one he’s particularly looking forward to.

“Last year saw 20 years of community ownership of the Isle of Eigg which was celebrated with the now traditional Eigg ceilidh, though this time it involved bands that had at least one resident of the island. The diversity was amazing – an island of around 100 folk can sustain the vital elements of Daimh, Pictish Trail, Ja Math Tha ceilidh band and the thrash metal behemoth that is The Massacre Cave. I thought this was a beautiful modern-day contrast to the very traditional island nights Celtic Connections has featured in the past.”

FOR Shaw, meanwhile, much of her time has been filled with preparations for the Grit Orchestra’s celebration of Martyn Bennett’s Bothy Culture at the SSE Hydro. It will be an emotional evening for her.

“In 1997 Martyn and I both played at the Edinburgh Scots Fiddle Festival,” Shaw says. “It was just a few days before I set off travelling to New Zealand and the newly released recording of Bothy Culture was one of the few things I took with me. I remember playing it to practically everyone I met over there and it has been part of my playlist on tours and at home ever since. It was overwhelming to be asked but it’s been a real pleasure learning to play these tunes that were already implanted in my brain.”

And after the Grit Orchestra, Shaw will then be getting back to the day job with The Poozies at the Strathclyde Suite in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 1.

“We recorded a new album just before Christmas in Castlesound studio in Edinburgh with our old Harem Scarem bandmate Inge Thomson in the producer’s chair,” says Shaw. “In an effort to have it ready in time for the Celtic Connections gig we’re launching a presale campaign this week. As well as the album on CD or vinyl there will be some other interesting and unexpected packages up for grabs… I can’t say too much at the moment as I haven’t told the others yet what they’ll be selling! But all will be revealed on Thursday, January 11.”

And after that can we expect the pair to somehow find the time to release a follow-up to Birl-esque?

“Definitely,” says Shaw. “It makes so much sense to us to have this project on the go. We can both carry on playing with our regular bands and working with other musicians but we’ve only really scratched the surface with this. Once we have the kids doing the roadying, driving, selling the CDs and tour managing we’ll be set up!”

Jonathon Jobson, The National