First published in the Guardian on 16 January, 2015
Piper, fiddler, composer and producer Martyn Bennett died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma ten years ago this month. He was 33 but already a game-changer in Scottish folk music. His final album, Grit, is a stunning electronic studio work (he was by then too ill to play his instruments) that mixes dance beats with archive song and spoken word from the powerful voices of Sheila Stewart, Jeannie Robertson and others. If eyebrows were raised at the time of its 2003 release, Grit is now broadly recognised for what it is: a bold celebration of melody and the voice, an inspiring act of personal defiance, a clear statement that traditional culture in Scotland is alive and can handle the shake-up.
The opening event of this year’s Celtic Connections was a live performance of Grit arranged for 80-piece orchestra, choir and vocal soloists by BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra violinist Greg Lawson. This is the kind of ballsy one-off that should happen at festivals. In many ways, it had done its job before a note was sounded; I doubt I was alone in spending recent weeks revisiting Grit, marvelling at its deft way of spinning an earthy tune into outer orbit.
By nature of the range of musicians he hand-picked for the gig, Lawson paid tribute to Bennett’s own roaming influences and disregard for genre labels. On stage was a gathering of musical clans: Scottish Chamber Orchestra principals (the strings, especially, were largely classical players) beside jazzers (saxist Phil and drummer Tom Bancroft), feisty singers (Fiona Hunter, Annie Grace, Karen Matheson, Rab Noakes) flanked by Scotland’s top young pipers (Ross Ainslie, Calum MacCrimmon, Fraser Fifield, Ali Hutton). In the auditorium was a capacity audience whose connection to Bennett was palpably personal. There was a huge amount of love in the room.
And the performance? It worked. Sure, it was rough around the edges in ways that the album is not, and no, it isn’t possible to fully replicate the heavy thwat of electronic bass frequencies, even with eight double basses and a bank of low brass. At times I missed Grit’s nimbleness, Bennett’s precise knack for weaving together samples, but maybe that wasn’t the point. The energy on stage was infectious and the orchestral sound was big-hearted. Fiona Hunter belted out Move like a call to arms; David Hayman intoned Psalm 118, gruff and stormy from the balcony. Wedding was heartbreakingly tender, violas whispering a slow tune above low drones. The evening ended with the entire hall singing together. It’s hard to imagine a fonder tribute.