Review: Mike Vass’s In the Wake of Neil Gunn

First published in the Guardian on 22 January, 2015

In 1937, the writer Neil Gunn quit his job as an Inverness customs officer, sold his house, bought a small boat and set off sailing around the Western isles. If this was a mid-life crisis it was seriously constructive: the following year he published an account of the trip, Off in a Boat, full of soft wit and poetic musings on the sea and its mythologies. It solidified Dunn’s status as central figure in the Scottish Renaissance.

In 2013, the musician Mike Vass spent a protracted period in hospital suffering Lyme disease, during which his father lent him a copy of Off in a Boat. Vass resolved to retrace Gunn’s journey when he recovered and did so in 2014, writing tunes and gathering sound samples along the way. These became a terrific album, In the Wake of Neil Gunn, whose live Celtic Connections debut opened with video footage of Vass decked out in Gore-Tex under stormy Hebridean skies, playing the fiddle on the back of his dad’s sailing boat. The sea and the elements are everywhere in this music.

Vass is a classy, thoughtful musician. He has a great ear for atmosphere and a knack for writing tunes that lilt and yearn. He’s an adept weaver of electronic and acoustic textures and he plays fiddle and tenor guitar, both with a warm, sparse, stylish touch. Yet he keeps himself more facilitator than frontman: appearing here with a nine-piece band (including the excellent flutist/whistle player Hamish Napier), he sat centre-stage but rarely gave himself the tune. Occasionally the arrangements sounded overscored with thick strings and an oboist whose tone was never going to meld. Vass should trust the quality of his writing and keep it uncluttered. When he does, it’s really striking.