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Emma Pollock

Venue: The Hub (Edinburgh International Festival)
Town: Edinburgh
Date: 25/08/16

Emma Pollock, the Glasgow-based singer-songwriter, composer and musician, has been a solo artist since 2005, having previously been one of the founder-members of celebrated Glaswegian indie band The Delgados. Emma's solo career has generated three albums so far, the most recent of which, "In Search Of Harperfield", received critical acclaim and was shortlisted for this year's prestigious SAY (Scottish Album of the Year) Award.

Emma Pollock's gig in the impressive Main Hall at The Hub on 25th August was part of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), which, for the first time this year, included a range of contemporary music concerts in its repertoire. Emma's concessions to the EIF's refined reputation included wearing a dress, drinking her beer from a glass and trying not to swear… This sense of occasion was also reflected in the assembled musicians on stage. As well as a three-piece band, the line-up included special guests in the form of the Cairn String Quartet (whose beautiful playing and arrangements graced Emma's recent album) and, providing backing vocals, Jenny Reeve and Jill O'Sullivan of Glasgow band Bdy_Prts. There was also the promise of another special guest later in the show…

Although there would be occasional dips into Emma Pollock's back catalogue, this gig was largely devoted to songs from the recent album and the opening song, "Cannot Keep A Secret", served notice of the prodigious capabilities of the band on stage. Following a swooning doo-wop intro, Emma Pollock's impressive vocal range was immediately apparent, as her voice elegantly picked out the verses and soared above the crashing chords in the choruses. The dramatic bridge ushered in some sweeping strings and more soaring vocals to bring the song to a heady conclusion. On "Clemency", graceful piano and washes of cello-led strings provided a stark contrast to the quietly venomous vocal delivery and the controlled anger in the lyrics ("…I will clip your wings while sleeping, if you venture home again, and I will cut your legs from under you, if you so much as say her name…."). The expansive and darkly delicious strings on "Intermission" chimed perfectly with the sadness and exasperation in the lyrics and the passion and bruised elegance of Emma Pollock's vocals.

"House On The Hill" (co-written with Edinburgh singer-songwriter, Kim Edgar, and featuring on Emma's 2010 album, "The Law Of Large Numbers") was notable for stirring piano accompaniment, as Emma's vocals skilfully negotiated the edgy flurries of words in the verses and the wistfulness of the gently half-spoken choruses.

The other band members took a well-earned breather, as Emma Pollock welcomed her other special guest, long-time collaborator and friend RM Hubbert, to join her in providing his unique, flamenco-flavoured acoustic guitar accompaniment on two Pollock/Hubbert compositions, the starkly beautiful "Half Light" and the enigmatic and bittersweet childhood reminiscences played out in "Monster In The Pack" ("…buying cherries in a brown paper bag, as the leaves fall, there's a monster in the pack…"). "Hubby" (RM's nickname, not Emma's actual hubby, Paul Savage, who was in the audience….) left the stage to warm and well-earned applause.

As the main set drew to a close, Emma Pollock and her band had sections of the audience dancing in the aisles, as they let rip with the driving post-punk romp of "Parks And Recreation" (which recalled the early days of Blondie) and the breathless changes of pace in the swaggering power-pop of "Vacant Stare".

The encore began with the majestic, "Dark Skies", which featured more resonant strings and a rich, smoky vocal from Emma Pollock. Emma is originally from Castle Douglas and this song was inspired by the 'Dark Sky' status (ability to see the stars clearly) conferred on parts of south west Scotland ("…don't you love the way they dance above you in dark skies?"). The show ended on a high, with the ebb and flow of the moving "Old Ghosts", with soaring piano, an occasional hint of vibrato in Emma's passionate vocals and a melody and arrangement which Bacharach would be proud of.

With the brilliance of her recent album and performances like this one, Emma Pollock continues to underline her reputation as one of the most versatile and original singers, songwriters and musicians in Scotland's current music scene. Emma's powerful and moving songs combine imaginative and memorable melodies with impressionistic lyrics (full of striking imagery), which allow listeners to apply their own interpretations. Her husky and commanding vocals make a strong connection with the heart and the mind. Indeed, occasional comparisons with the vocal stylings of Dusty Springfield, Chrissie Hynde or Billie Holiday would not be wide of the mark.

David Ferguson

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