Kris Drever in Concert – The Basement, York – October 15 2019

October 27, 2019

I was surprised to find out that Drever is still only 40 years old. Stood there in front of a packed small basement he looked clean cut and youthful. Yet as the night unfolded his stories of drunken revelry, festivals and several musical projects, including the folk band Lau, confirm he’s been around for a while. In fact he had a lovely wicked self-deprecating sense of humour.

It’s fair to elevate him to the best of Scottish folk music and despite still producing fine music, his commercial peak came with 2006’s Black Water. This album is how I discovered him. When I espied that he was playing York I had to gird my loins and get there.

His voice is unique and places him north of the border to my Sassenach ears. Whilst tuneful and strong, it has a bagpipe drone quality that compliments the traditional songs he mainly sings. Such a song is “Beads & Feathers” that comes off the above ‘hit’ album. The words place you in a different time with different politics:

“You’ve been sailors for your souls, You’ve been soldiers unto many wars, You’ve been miners for your peaceful hearts, You’ve been fighters for your fallen tears and mine, This flowing water never ends, These granite mountains cannot fall, Just like them you live forever, And trade it all for beads and feathers”

Drever is a fabulous guitarist and switches between acoustic and a Telecaster. It’s not a hardship when he lets his fingers do the talking and we get instrumentals such as “Unst Bridal March”. Unst is a northern island in the Shetlands – the most northerly part of the British Isles. Like many of his tunes they are Celtic in their construction and rhythm. Drever dwells on the Shetlands but also on another more southerly archipelago, the Orkney Islands. It’s from here he reveals one of his latest compositions – “Scapa Flow 1919”. After the Armistice of World War One the surrendered German fleet was corralled in this natural harbour. He sings from the point of view of the sailors. The German High command decided to scuttled 52 ships; the biggest loss of shipping in one day.

He chirps that he’s off to Manchester tomorrow night to a BBC Folk Awards night to see if this song has won the award for the best folk song of 2019. He lamented that his attendance would involve meeting up with old friends and things could get “messy’. I note he didn’t win but I hope the hangover wasn’t too bad.

Over 20 songs he covered all bases in respect to the audiences’ favourites including mine, which was “Harvest Gypsies”, a derogatory name given to the migrant fruit pickers in the US 1930s dust bowl. Other highlights included “I Didn’t Try Hard Enough”, “If Wishes Were Horses”, “Shady Grove” and “Navigator”. 

It is a 10 date tour of England and now that he lives in Glasgow with his young family he can enjoy the easy access to the south and a loyal fan base. He said the trains were a key factor in leaving the Scottish islands, I don’t think he was joking! Despite his departure from the watery north, I hope he’ll continue to sing about the islands.

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