Live Review – Emily Scott Robinson with Violet Bell and Alisa Amador @ Celtic Connections 28/01/23

Last year Emily Scott Robinson, Alisa Amador and duo Violet Bell released an E.P. called ‘Built on Bones’ written for a production of Macbeth. In the songs they sang from the perspective of Shakespeare’s three witches and Lady Macbeth herself, in an attempt to reclaim and reframe the narrative of these women’s stories.

Taking to the Celtic Connections stage was a natural fit then for these artists – where better to sing the songs inspired by the Scottish play? The hallowed surrounding of the Mackintosh Church, only added to the beauty of the evening’s entertainment.

The staging gave time for each of the three artists to shine individually and collectively. Opening up the show was North Carolina duo Violet Bell, made up of Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez, whose strong set sparkled with folky delights including ‘The Fisherman’s Daughter’ about the Scottish myth of the selkie and the gorgeous ‘Meet Me in the Garden’. When Emily and Alisa joined on the final song ‘Come on up to the House’ it was a celebration of the friendship that had formed at songwriting camp and led these artists on this tour halfway across the world.

During the evening it was revealed that Alisa Amador had recently considered giving up full-time music and only changed her mind after winning the coveted NPR Tiny Desk contest. What a loss that would have been as her solo set was inspiring and evocative channeling Norah Jones and Natalia Lafourcade in her diversity of influences and sound. From Latin folk to bossanova she glittered in the spotlight, playing a green guitar and offering us an inventive intersection of sounds.

The love between the artists meant that the ‘headline’ slot really was an arbitrary divide. Emily Scott Robinson took the stage last to play some of her solo songs from her album American Siren but the other artists frequently joined her on stage.

Emily’s music has such pure storytelling power so it was no surprise that she was such a warm and open presence on stage. She told us how she used social media to write the witty ‘Things You Learn the Hard Way’ and reduced us all to tears with the story of how she wrote ‘Cheap Seats’ in honour of John Prine before signing to his record label. Prayers, dreams come true sometimes, she reminded us. Her songs have a deep vulnerability to them, none more so than when she went to the piano to sing ‘Let ‘Em Burn’, which was one of the most emotionally devastating (and yet strangely uplifting) songs I’ve ever been lucky enough to hear live.

When Violet Bell and Alisa joined her on stage to sing the Macbeth songs, I wasn’t sure how they would fit into an otherwise standard evening of traditional singer-songwriter style folk music. Thankfully it was a revelation. Together on stage something truly magical did happen, a haunting and healing performance of song like ‘Old Gods’ and ‘Men and Moons’ brought something unique and almost unsettling to the stage. When someone requested the title track they laughed, dismissing it as ‘too creepy’, and yet that atmosphere was not entirely unwelcome.

The encore remained more traditional with the four musicians (and the crowd) singing Emily’s gorgeous song ‘Travelin’ Mercies’, finishing off mic and making everyone cry once more.

The standing ovations from the festival crowd were more than deserved – the pilgrims who had made it to the Mackintosh Church were blessed with heavenly harmonies worthy of worship. An evening built, not on bones, but on friendship and love.

Photography by Kendall Wilson, with kind permission.

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