Review: Karine Polwart & Sam Amidon

First published in the Guardian on 28 January, 2015

They say the way to deal with nerves is straight-up. “To cure me of a case of the jitters, would you sing a song?” Karine Polwart asked her Celtic Connections audience, who cheerfully obliged with a round of Matt McGinn’s daft number Oor Wee Wean can Sook a Bar of Chocolate (“promoting Scotland as a health-food destination,” Polwart joked). It’s hard to imagine someone of such musical and political conviction having the jitters about anything much. Polwart writes music for social change, with lyrics that articulate their values poetically and succinctly, obliquely and persuasively. The best of her songs — the dignified indignation of Sorry; The King of Birds, inspired by the Occupy movement; The River, among the most touching songs ever written by a parent for a child — get deep under your skin and make you think.

Polwart’s voice trembled at the start of this solo set and her storytelling, normally beautifully unfurled between songs, was a little flustered. But it couldn’t last, not in front of such a warm home crowd, and as she wended through Ewan MacColl, Sydney Carter, The Waterboys (“think Denny High leaving disco, 1978”) and her own heartfelt numbers, she emboldened back to form. More than ever, somehow, her sincerity and humanity as a performer rang true.

Sharing the bill was Sam Amidon, Vermont-born, London-based folk bluegrass troubadour who delves into shape-note traditions and Appalachian ballads and makes it all so beguilingly his own. His guitar lines have the fancy fingerwork of a crack banjo player and his banjo lines have the tugging suspensions of a keen jazzer; over all that he croons with implacable expression and stance as still as a rock — if you drew the contours of his vocal phrases you’d find a line as straight as the open road. He finished his set with Rosa Lee Watson’s Your Lone Journey, beautifully tender and sparse.