Live Review | The NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson
It’s exactly one year since I first encountered Emily Smith in a small music club in Doncaster, where she played a couple of sets with her husband Jamie McClennan, providing us with what I always thought to be a complete unit, with guitar, accordion, fiddle and piano, as well as one astonishingly good voice and a perfectly complimentary harmony voice to go with it. Tonight at the NCEM, Emily and Jamie expanded upon that complete unit with the inclusion of Kevin McGuire on double bass and Russ Milligan on guitar and banjo and now I’m convinced we have a perfectly rounded, new and improved, complete unit. Last November I opened my review with “fresh from Songs of Praise”, the couple having just returned from appearing on the BBC’s prestigious God-slot prog, but this time I could equally say “fresh from extensive touring in Europe”, adding “with a critically acclaimed new album out and with a Scots Singer of the Year nomination under her belt”. It would appear that during the last twelve months, Emily has been very busy indeed. Emily is one of those song writers whose songs are hardly distinguishable from those already in the tradition. They are written in a style that takes in all the crucial elements of a good folk song, and her endeavours in song writing have not gone unnoticed nor unrewarded at home or further afield. Picking up the BBC Radio Scotland Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year Award in 2002 at the Celtic Connections Festival, it’s hardly surprising that she can also play her instruments well (Accordion and Piano). The Dumfriesshire born singer went on to win the folk song category award in the USA Song Writing Competition in 2005 with “Edward of Morton”, and to top it all, she is a gifted singer with a clear and vibrant vocal style. Tonight Emily intended playing all of the songs bar one from her latest release Too Long Away, but a request for the one song she didn’t intend on singing, “Old Mortality”, kiboshed this plan, and Emily ended up playing the lot! Emily’s “Sunset Hymn” shows an astonishing command over arrangement, with the interplay between Jamie’s fiddle and Russ and Kevin’s mature rhythm section, all topped by Emily’s beautiful delivery. The same can be said for the band’s treatment of traditional material such as the engaging “May Colven”, which resounded around the stone walls of the NCEM tonight. It’s with the sensitive ballads that Emily excels. “Robert Tannahill’s “Fly Me to Some Desert Isle” held the audience spellbound; little wonder Emily’s nomination for Scots Singer of the Year came in such a hurry. The one notable contemporary song not from her own pen was Iris Dement’s “Sweet is the Melody”, which fitted in with the plausible Celtic/country crossover, which Emily is more than capable of pulling off. I have no doubt that Emily won new friends in York tonight. A treasure. Supporting Emily Smith tonight was the Scottish/American singer songwriter David Ferrard, a musician who spent much of his early life straddling the Atlantic between Edinburgh and Western Pennsylvania drawing upon two distinct cultures to provide a hybrid of gentle ballads and meaningful songs. I first saw David in Sheffield at Roy Bailey’s 50th anniversary concert a few weeks ago, where he was invited along to contribute a couple of songs to the proceedings. Introducing him with the words “his father gave him his home, his mother gave him his accent”, Roy brought to the capacity City Hall audience a taster of what David Ferrard is capable of and tonight at the NCEM, we got a little more. Performing songs from his debut album Broken Sky, David managed to coax some chorus singing out of the audience with songs such as “Take Me Out Waltzing Tonight” and “Childhood Days”, before turning to the more serious stuff including Robert Burns2’ “The Slaves Lament” and his own anti-war song “Hills Of Virginia”. With a seemingly good natured attitude towards life in general and a warm approachable personality, David demonstrated an ability to deliver songs in a clear, strong, yet sometimes fragile vibrato, which left you in no doubt that he meant every word of it.