Mary Black and Clannad in concert - The Lowry, Salford

By Dave Cunningham

As the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations approach The Lowry offers an astonishing value for money double bill combining two Irish artists – Mary Black and Clannad. The pairing is inspired. Both started in the folk movement but developed in different ways. Black moved into songwriting and interpretation of songs by other artists while Clannad worked towards new age mysticism and soundtracks. The concert, therefore, offers the opportunity to hear just how flexible folk music can be – and to have a good time in the process.

The concert highlights the varying styles of the artists. Mary Black takes a modest intimate approach; entering without ceremony and performing country tinged songs against backing from a four piece largely acoustic band. Clannad have a much more dramatic style with moody lighting and lush musical arrangements.

A striking feature of Black’s set is the instruments that are absent as much as those present. Nick Scott’s rumbling and fluid bass is so effective at setting a rhythm that it takes awhile to notice that there are no percussion instruments. Instead of the traditional fiddle to set the melody Richie Buckley’s saxophone brings a soulful aspect to the music.

The simple musical arrangements emphasise the pure quality of Black’s voice. Although the songs of heartbreak and loss threaten to become sentimental Black’s dignified interpretation ensures that they are moving but not maudlin. It is gentle and touching opening to the evening.

Clannad open their set with selections from their new album ’ Nádúr’ and proceed moving through their entire career including traditional instrumentals and the theme music by which they first came to wider public attention. The instruments employed range from modern synthesisers to basic traditional penny whistles – even a harp.

Most of the songs are in Gaelic, which may be a blessing as introductions spoken in English give an idea of the vague new age subject matter such as the rhapsody of trees. But with Clannad the lyrics are less important than the music. Like opera understanding the language in which the songs are sung is less important than enjoying the mixture of Moya Brennan’s ethereal vocals and the rich musical arrangements that swirl around the theatre.

A common problem with co-headlining shows is that they feel rushed with insufficient time allowed for the artists to display their full range. A generous three-hour running time ensures that this is not the case tonight. There is little sense of ego in the show -all performers unite onstage for an encore. This gives the rare chance to hear the contrast between Black’s earthy and Brennan’s airy vocal styles as they trade verses. The combined musical power of both groups almost blows the roof off The Lowry and brings a memorable evening to a rousing conclusion.