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Venue: Grateful Fred's - The Atkinson
Town: Southport
Date: 5/10/16

Grateful Fred's @ The Atkinson is known throughout the land [and beyond] as one of the premier venues for Americana music. In a break with that tradition, tonight we had the superb up and coming band Connla, from Northern Ireland.

Connla's publicity bills them as "the hottest new group out of Northern Ireland" and it was not wrong. Five supremely talented musicians, they are indeed one of the most exciting new bands that I have seen for a long time.

Connla is a five-piece comprising Ciara McCafferty [vocals and bodhran], Ciaran Carlin [flute and whistles], Paul Starrett[guitar] and siblings Emer and Conor Mallon on harp and uillean pipes/whistles respectively.

The band, who hail from Derry and Armagh, met up whilst studying music at Ulster University and have been together for eighteen months.

The band is named after Connla, a figure from the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology,who was the son of Ulster Champion Cu Chulainn [more of whom later].

In July 2016 Connla released their superb debut album "River Waiting" and they are now undertaking their first UK tour. Fortunately, Grateful Fred had the foresight to book them and here they are in Southport tonight.

From the first notes of the first set of tunes it was apparent that here is a formidable band who, whilst rooted in Irish traditional music, are not afraid to be bold and innovative. The intricate interplay between flute, harp,pipes and guitar was exhilarating.

As with the album, the set was a mixture of dynamic instrumentals and gorgeous songs, sung by Ciara McCafferty, who continues a long tradition of fine singers from Northern Ireland. As well as her own song "Moon and Stars", Ciara sang beautiful versions of David Francey's "Saints and Sinners" and Mary Dillon's "The Boatman" .The latter featured a lovely combination of harp and flute from Emer and Ciaran.

The band showed its appetite for innovation with its highly original version of the traditional song "Daily Growing", which featured an instrumental coda "Willie Currans", written by flautist Ciaran.

Earlier on I mentioned that the mythical figure Connla was the son of Cu Chulainn . The story goes that Cu killed his son in fight, having failed to recognise him. Harpist Emer has written a stunning instrumental piece about this episode, which she calls "The Enchanted". This magical composition was one of the highlights of the evening, a gorgeous blend of harp, whistle and guitar.

Speaking of guitar, Paul Starrett shone on his lovely solo instrumental "For Doc", which was written as a tribute to his late guitar tutor. Paul also wrote [with Ciara] the title song to the album "River Waiting", which has an Irish-Americana feel to it.

This was a marvellous performance by an incredibly talented young band who take traditional Irish music and give it a contemporary twist. Do try to get to see them live but if you can't, listen to their album, you won't be disappointed.

Peter Cowley

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