Gary Innes – ERA

Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 3/5

Highland born accordionist Gary Innes is a founder member of the force that is award winning Celtic band Manran.  Since his first solo album How’s the Craic in 2005, Gary has released a multiple collaborative albums with Breabach’ Ewan Robertson, accordion band Box Club and played on three albums with Manran.  This sense of musical restlessness and breadth of influences is typical of this his second album.  Its strength comes in part from the busy twelve years since his last album of his own material.  At times this album feels like flicking through a diary, well-thumbed photo album, or rooting through an old desk.  Gary Innes’ own notes explain and expand on some wonderfully esoteric song and tune titles.  Part of the album’s charm and interest comes from the stories behind the music and his inspirations.  What raises ERA beyond the mundane is the fact that behind some quirky titles lies music that is often atmospheric, stirring and genuinely uplifting.  Light and shade rather than just thumping dance music.  Opening set of tunes set up the album nicely, spry and lively playing.  An interesting time signature leads to a swirling dance set.  “The Road to Lochabar” slows right down and is positively cinematic, it is that evocative, with a rising swell of vocals, pipes and flute.  “The Caman Man”, against a long history of football songs is a folky ode to shinty.  The song being written after Gary Innes’ retirement from playing. There is a strong sense of geographical place and a place in time to this album.  The previous tune was inspired by the drive back to his home and “The Caman Man” is grounded by Robert Robertson’s local Lochabar accent.  Songs about a Scottish sport are admittedly a bit niche, but it flows from the beautiful previous track and its uplifting lyric easily encompasses more than the game Innes was writing about.  “May Life Always Be Peachy” is one of those moments where the music has an emotional depth and a cinematic quality that goes far beyond anything its name might suggest.  At times suggesting “Both Sides the Tweed”, it is on this and other slower tracks where Innes; power as a player and a composer bursts out of the speakers and demands your attention.  Similarly “The Highland Obama”.  It’s almost as if the wry titles are a self-deprecating attempt to downplay the intensity and inventiveness of the music, defuse any muso pretention.  A kind of Celtic, Spinal Tap ‘lick my love pump’ moment.  Titles aside, turn it up, close your eyes and be prepared to be transported on sensitive and inventive music played with mastery.  Siobhan Miller’s perfectly phrased vocal on “Zara”, Scottish Soul, just deepens rather than breaks the mood.  Mention must be made for moments, like between the verses on “Zara”, where Pipes and guitar are layered and sculpted while Steve Byrne’s drums are an exercise in understatement, accenting the rhythm.  “Grace and Pride” as a sentiment sums up what is captivating about this album, graceful playing, a lightness of touch and the pride of a man looking at a part of world he knows well and letting us into his life.  As a song it is another strong emotive vocal, some musical twists and turns and a heartfelt lyric.  “Our Heroes” is a real lump in the throat moment.  Duncan McGillivray plays a stirring air on a set of bagpipes played at the Battle of Festubert in 1915, while around him a folky big band build a bewitching atmosphere.  A charity single with all money raised going to Scotland’s veteran charity, Erskine.  A powerful end to a fine album.  Gary Innes is very much up there with master players like Donal Lunny and Davy Spillane equally at home with the fast the furious and the smoky and brooding.  Not to suggest that being a member of the excellent Manran and his many collaborative projects aren’t also perfect moments, but let’s hope it isn’t another 12 years till album number three.