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Reviews: Music

Eilidh McKellar

Eilidh McKellar

Edinburgh Blues Club

Rob Adams

Two-thousand-and-fourteen is shaping up to be a significant year for Eilidh McKellar. The 20-year-old guitarist from Edinburgh is due to graduate from Leeds College of Music this summer and shortly after will release her first album, Delta Devil Dreams, as she launches herself into a full-time music career.

Her recently formed hometown blues club is behind her, giving McKellar her first headlining gig in Edinburgh and there was a good turn-out to hear a local talent who has been endorsed by the hugely popular blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa and has acquired American management.

McKellar has released two singles in the run-up to her album's release and these were two of the strongest numbers here. Her first, Summer Daze, has a readily memorable melodic chorus and a strong riffing undercurrent that her band played with the groovy exuberance harnessed to tight discipline that marked their performance generally.

The more recently issued Hold Steady is similarly catchy with blues-rock and indie influences and highlighted McKellar's confidence as a guitarist who chooses her notes carefully, rather than overplaying, and knows how to make an impact instrumentally.

At the moment she could use crisper diction to give her song lyrics greater strength as it wasn't always possible to understand what she was singing. This is a shame since her music has character and while the blues content might not have been strong enough for everybody's liking, especially following the more back to basics with punch and verve approach of openers GT's Boos Band, a duet between McKellar and her drummer had a certain eerie Mississippi quality that bodes well for the future.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

Here was an object lesson in performance and a rich musical feast from a woman most probably still see as a pretty face who sings pleasant dancefloor-filling tunes.

On stage alongside her were the sextet who play on her silver-certified 2014 album, Wanderlust, a collection of Eastern European-flavoured, fairytale-inspired songs written with Ed Harcourt.That album was performed in its entirety, the singer clad in an short embroidered red frock that hinted at Russian national dress, her two violinists and backing singers in complementary brief pinafores. The attention to detail in every department suggested a show destined for much bigger venues, but it was Ellis-Bextor's stage-craft and rapport with the audience that sold the material so successfully. It is a fine album, but the queue to buy a signed copy at the end suggested many of the crowd did not know it beforehand. In among highlights like single Runaway Daydreamer, ballad Young Blood, and rocker 13 Little Dolls, there was room for one of Harcourt's own songs and one by Ellis-Bextor's first band The Audience, complete with a memory of playing King Tut's as a teenager.

All that was before the same musicians transformed themselves into a disco band, channelling Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards with the Chic strings and the frontwoman returning to the stage in a sparkling swimsuit and chiffon topcoat to serve up Groovejet, Moloko's Sing It Back, and, of course, Murder On The Dancefloor. It was a well-trailed change of pace executed with aplomb, and would have been a fine finish except for a final trick when the singer and Harcourt rematerialised at the mixing desk to silence the Oran Mor chatter with an unplugged version of Wanderlust's closer, When the Storm Has Blown Over. A classic gig.

National Youth Orchestra of Scotland

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Michael Tumelty

THIS is a bit dry for a Monday morning, but as someone once involved in education, I have always been as engaged by the processes as by the product. From that point of view I was deeply impressed by the performances of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland on Saturday with New Zealand conductor Tecwyn Evans.

At every level, the NYOS youngsters' playing reflected the teaching and coaching of their mentors, in control, detail, articulation and ensemble playing. Walton's Johannesburg Festival Overture can be a thrilling stramash. With NYOS and Evans, it was neat, nimble and needlepoint playing personified; and what emerged strikingly from that was the compact economy of Walton's wit.

That sense of economy and compactness touched everything in this programme. While the broad themes, spacious atmospheres, stomping rhythms, and lustrous chordal passages of James MacMillan's trumpet Concerto, Epiclesis, filled the canvas, there was never a sense that they were rampaging colourfully across the landscape, but instead, rivetingly focused in accompaniment to Mark O'Keeffe's blisteringly concentrated solo performance, which cut to the emotional and spiritual heart of this masterwork: talk about hitting the bullseye; O'Keeffe's playing was undemonstratively sensational. A stupendous performance, with no cheap trumpet thrills and no vacuous rhetoric.

Similarly with the NYOS performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations. which had a striking honesty in its absence of floss, gloss and flash: sometimes the truth is best told simply. No emotional necks were wrung in Evans's account: Nimrod, for once, was not squeezed dry, while Peter Longworth's dazzling little vignettes, Ludi, were economically crafted and absolutely to the point. Splendid night, and a lesson to all.

NYCoS National Girls Choir

St Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

We are accustomed to seasonal wonder when Christopher Bell's young charges perform the fruits of their week-long residential Easter singing courses as an annually reinvented, beautifully disciplined, immaculately turned-out unit, but that doesn't make the achievement any less remarkable. What has been just as important in recent years - and particularly so of the Girls Choir (the Boys had their Easter concert last weekend in Perth) - is the rich repertoire that is found for them to perform.

The discoveries of this programme were challenging three-part arrangements of four songs by British composer Michael Head, including his most famous The Ships Of Arcady, setting Irish First World War poet Francis Edward Ledwidge, alongside Star Candles, about the Southern Cross constellation, by Margaret Rose, with whom he wrote Christmas carol The Little Road To Bethlehem, and an exquisite Ave Maria.

Those swiftly followed the performance by the young women (12-16) of the 10 settings of Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden Of Verse in The Land Of Counterpane by Snowman composer Howard Blake, a suite that should prove a hot ticket when they repeat it at St Giles' Cathedral on August 22, as part of the NYCos Fringe programme. We also heard a taster of their contribution to the Edinburgh International Festival this year, when they join the RSNO and Edinburgh Festival Chorus for Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony at the Usher Hall on August 24.

Other repertoire came from the pens of more regular contributors to the NYCoS songbook, including Sally Beamish's witty trio of cat songs, setting Richard Medrington and Ken Johnston, whose Holyrood concluded the senior choir's set, and whose own RLS settings were performed by the Training Choir under Mark Evans.

Alan Benzie Trio

Glasgow Art Club

Rob Adams

If Alan Benzie's tutors at Berklee School of Music suggested that he use his dreams as inspiration for compositions, they advised him well. It might mean that the young pianist, who is now back in Glasgow and passing on his skills to students of his own, exposes his audiences to some whacky tales but there's a real strength in Benzie's writing that carries on into his improvisations and into the whole concept of the superb trio that he led here and is promising to record later this year.

Benzie's ideas are often musically quite simple but what really impresses is his ability to develop and sustain a motif over varied contours and dynamics from his rhythm partners, bassist Andrew Robb and the marvellous Hungarian drummer Marton Juhasz, so that a piece such as From A to B actually feels like it's made the journey described in its title.

Juhasz plays a big part in this group's ability to leave a genuinely satisfying impression. Without ever dominating the sound, he offers support, a clear sense of direction and a compact range of colours.

At one point he did raise his contribution to quite a clatter but this was at the service of lifting the music to yet another exciting level and he's equally likely to use his hands or to bring impetus and a distinctive beat with brushes as with sticks.

Duke Ellington's Solitude was one of a couple of standards played but Benzie's own pieces, including the bluesy, understated Midnight Cafe, showed a player and his band carrying on the jazz tradition with imagination and a style of his and their own.

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