Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook

Leith Theatre

Graeme Thomson

Five stars

AT THE National Museum in Edinburgh’s Old Town, half a century of Scottish pop history is currently braving the curatorial gaze in the Rip It Up exhibition. A couple of miles north, folk artist, actress, writer and all-in creative whirlwind Karine Polwart brought much the same raw material to life in a mighty celebration which bounced between giddy veneration and daring reinvention.

“You can make a folk song out of anything,” Polwart commented after an intense deconstruction of Biffy Clyro’s Machines. In fact, the show travelled far beyond her home turf, roaming from Big Country to the Blue Nile, Chvrches to Ivor Cutler, encompassing pop, punk and indie abrasiveness, with a daft pop quiz thrown in for good measure. Accompanied by a superb five-piece band, Polwart proved as comfortable twirling around – “elbows out!” she commanded – to Altered Images’s I Could Be Happy as teasing out the gorgeous glumness of Strawberry Switchblade’s Since Yesterday or the woozy atmospherics of John Martyn’s Don’t Want to Know.

Throughout, she wore her love for these songs like a smile. Polwart’s busy hands conducted the flow, as though working twine, pulling the disparate threads into focus. An ingenious medley of Here Comes the Rain Again and Smalltown Boy was revelatory. Ivor Cutler’s Women of The World rose and fell like sea-swell, a wonky, welcome call to arms. Crooned by Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott, the plangent downscaling of Party Fears Two suggested Scott Walker singing Brel. Later, Frightened Rabbit’s Swim Until You Can’t See Land landed like a gut-punch.

The set peaked with a raucous mash-up of Movin’ On Up and KT Tunstall’s Black Horse and The Cherry Tree, Polwart and company roaring the folk gospel. A studio album based on this EIF show is forthcoming, but this was a night which bears repeating. Same time next year?