• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

My year - The Herald arts critics look back at their highlights of 2012

Whatever else you want to say about 2012, it had Punch.

A new album, Who's Feeling Young Now?, in February signalled a further refinement in New York-based quintet Punch Brothers' take on the string band tradition. However, even that collection of breezy, adventurous but catchy songs juxtaposed with daring bluegrass-and-beyond musicianship didn't quite prepare listeners for the brilliantly honed dynamism, collective virtuosity and sheer effervescence that the group has developed in person.

Their concert at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh in November was absolutely breathtaking. By turns audacious, sensitively lyrical and bitingly concise, they seemed able to manoeuvre, at the flick of an imaginary switch, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar and double bass from experimental probing to traditional certainty, from the avant-garde to the honky tonky in fact, with a level of mastery rarely heard before.

A string band of a different stripe and slightly more restrained, if also highly refined, graced the same stage later in the month. Rant comprises four of Scotland's leading fiddlers and brings together Shetland, Highland and Scandinavian traditions in lovely, imaginative arrangements that highlight the melodic beauty of their music while offering fresh, subtle voicings and harmonies as enhancement. Still a relatively new venture – this was only their second gig – they promised much on a folk scene that also produced great singing, notably from Kathleen MacInnes, with her gorgeous Cille Bhride album, and Rod Paterson, with an Edinburgh Folk Club gig that oozed love for and understanding of his material, as well as some outstanding instrumental contributions.

Of these, fiddler Duncan Chisholm's Fringe performance of Kin – a multi-media examination of family roots with gloriously realised, utterly soulful music – was as certain a candidate for the Bank of Scotland Herald Angel award it won as I've heard.

And while it crept in under the radar to some extent, young Irish harper Michelle Mulcahy's debut album, Suaimhneas, was one of the year's strongest releases, a superb celebration of the virtues of crisp technique, authoritatively steady pacing and keeping the narrative of the original song firmly in mind while playing its air.

Thrilling doesn't quite convey the effect that saxophonist Joshua Redman's Edinburgh Jazz Festival date with arch mischief-makers-cum-sharper-than-sharp musical scientists The Bad Plus created. These were top-line players communicating, both among themselves and with the audience, at a scarily inventive level and yet bringing forth a raw exuberance and excitement that you could almost reach out and touch.

The jazz scene, which was dominated to some extent by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra's award-winning achievements and continued musical excellence in honouring subjects as diverse as Duke Ellington, Weather Report and Michael Brecker, supplied other highlights in Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson's ultra-classy nonet performance of their New Focus suite at Glasgow Art Club, and stunning septuagenarian Harold Mabern's driving of saxophonist Eric Alexander's quintet from the piano stool.

Some flames didn't burn too long. The Armenian pianist Tigran followed up a wonderfully inventive solo concert at Celtic Connections with a mystifyingly under-realised and at times rather inept performance at Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, barely nine months later, leaving this reviewer pondering the wisdom of posting "don't miss whatever you do" tweets and backing them up by paying at the door on a night off. Oops.

However, other flames have been burning for decades and continue to burn with a vigour that suggests the musical equivalent of keeping a portrait in the attic. So step forward the improbably brilliant Jefferson Starship, the timelessly rockin' 'n' bluesin' Steve Miller and the band whose fiftieth anniversary tour is still giving me goosebumps - the fabulous, evergreen Hollies.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

132599