Julie Fowlis brought nothing less than a completely immersive experience in Gaelic culture and song Saturday night to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
Before an audience that filled slightly more than half the theater, Fowlis performed two 45-minute sets of songs and tunes from her native Scotland, all but one sung in Scottish Gaelic. Throughout, her vocals were the indisputable star — even if you couldn’t understand the words she was singing, you could feel the emotion in each syllable as she whispered, cooed and wailed her way through each piece.
But what made the show so special was the attention also paid to the instruments. Fowlis’ incredible band — bouzouki player (and Fowlis’ husband) Eamon Doorley, fiddler Duncan Chisholm and guitarist Tony Byrne — brought each song and medley to life with lively playing that pushed and pulled against the vocal melodies, never overshadowing Fowlis’ beautiful voice. Most of the songs stretched into extended jams, with Fowlis on whistle, often soloing against Chisholm to create an ethereal effect.
The acoustic group wasted no time plunging into Gaelic tradition, opening with a haunting, mournful medley, which Fowlis described as “an immigrant’s song.” Immediately, her vocals took center stage, from the song’s moving, a cappella introduction to the song’s gradual build. Her soft and ethereal, yet powerful, singing continued to impress on the next low key ballad, “An Roghainn.”
The pace picked up a bit with a couple of lively Scottish work songs, including the lyrically bittersweet “Oganaich Uir a Rinn M’ Fhagail.” A Gaelic take on the Beatles’ classic “Blackbird,” called “Lon Dubh,” was the highlight of the first set, as the band turned the familiar tune into an Irish- and Scottish-tinged ballad.
Throughout the evening, the interplay between Irish and Scottish traditions (Fowlis and Chisholm are both Scottish, while Doorley and Byrne are from Dublin) was on display in both the music and the friendly back and forth on stage. Doorley introduced a medley of Irish tunes to close the first set as “the highlight of the night” in a mock jab that carried over to the beginning of the second act.
“We’ve resolved our differences,” Doorley announced as the band took the stage again, “Ireland and Scotland are on speaking terms again.”
The second set continued in an upbeat vein with a dance medley to start, followed by an audience singalong on a touching ballad about a “seal woman.” An extended medley entitled “Rugadh mi ‘teis meadhan na mara/Me zo ganet e kreiz er mor (I Was Born in the Midst of the Sea)” began as a calm ballad and slowly built into an extended jam featuring Doorley and Byrne’s interlocking fingerpicking.
The only English singing of the evening came during the encore, with “Touch the Sky,” one of two songs Doorley and Fowlis recorded for the soundtrack to Disney/Pixar’s animated film “Brave,” released last year. As if this wasn’t enough of a crowd-pleaser, Fowlis immediately disappeared after the song, only to reappear with bagpipes, to some of the evening’s loudest applause.