Live Reviews - Reviews

LAU @ Duncairn Arts Centre, Belfast


There’s something about Edinburgh tables. JK Rowling’s scribblings at one in an Edinburgh café gave birth to Harry Potter and world literary domination. Likewise, when accordionist Martin Green, singer-guitarist Kris Drever and fiddler Aidan O’Rourke jammed at a table in Edinburgh in 2004, little did they know that those would be the first steps towards taking the folk world by storm.

Twelve years, five critically acclaimed albums and a slew of BBC Radio 2 Best Folk Band awards later, LAU find themselves in demand at festivals, clubs and concert halls the length and breadth of the UK, in North America and as far afield as Japan and Russia. And Belfast too. Four years on from LAU’s Black Box gig, the Duncairn Arts Centre plays host to this most imaginative – and unorthodox – of modern folk ensembles.

On ‘Tiger Hill (Armoured Man)’ the marriage of pizzicato fiddle and Godin archtop guitar in subtle, mantra-like motifs, underpinned by the insistent rhythmic pulse of Green’s curious forest of electronically-wired forks and spoons, provides a hypnotic frame for Drever’s yearning–if somewhat indistinct–vocals. In waves, the music surges and recedes, embracing distorted guitar one moment and isolated fiddle lyricism the next. It’s a spare yet powerful opener and sets the tone for what’s to follow.

Someone in the audience calls out for a hornpipe, and although the threads of jig, reels, polkas and hornpipe-esque rhythms do run through striking instrumentals such as ‘Torsa’ and ‘Sea’, this is a band as much in tune with the frequencies of folktronica, indie rock, and, in the most ambient instrumental passages, perhaps even Underworld.

The closest LAU comes to the sung folk tradition so deeply embedded in these isles is in its stirring version of Lal Waterson’s ‘Midnight Feast’, which bleeds into the foot-stomping ‘Death of the Dining Car.’

Acoustic guitar and the spare architecture of both ‘Throwing Pennies’ and ‘Ghosts’ foreground Drever’s melancholy poetry. “I weighed my heart with an anchor made of stone”, he sings on the former, on a tale that juxtaposes homelessness – “the tar makes a blanket” – with the fear-free refuge of love. On the latter tune, the ordeal of migration is addressed in gentle balladry – “we came seeking protection away from the strife, away from the struggles and hardships of life” – a reminder, in these cruelly unsympathetic times, that the refugee’s journey harbours no romance at all.

Eighteen-minute songs are more usually the preserve of progressive rock bands and ‘The Bell That Never Rang’ – the title track of LAU’s 2015 release – certainly has something of the epic about it. Blurring the lines between contemporary classical, folk and more experimental sonorities, the trio’s shifting rhythmic pulses, uplifting melodies and lyric craft provide a highlight of the evening.

The encore, ‘Far From Portland’, likewise obscures genres, fusing country-ish groove, folksy melody and ambient-rock in a potent brew. Drever and O’Rourke have the final say, dovetailing in a slow waltz of caressing lyricism.

As this Duncairn gig illustrates, LAU remains a uniquely exciting live band in the increasingly diverse folk music universe. More twists and turns than a Harry Potter plot and just as much spellbinding sorcery.

Now, to e-Bay for one of those tables. Ian Patterson