Sarah Hayes is a Northumbrian singer and multi-instrumentalist, currently based in Glasgow, who, when not pursuing solo projects, plays in indie-pop band Admiral Fallow, folk trio Wildings and a range of classical/chamber groups. Her debut solo EP, "Mainspring", was released in 2013 and her first solo album, "Woven", received lavish praise from a range of music critics on its release towards the end of 2015. "Woven" is an elegant and boldly inventive suite of music and songs, resulting from a 'New Voices' commission and themed around "how relationships and experience create our sense of identity, place and purpose across a lifetime", and it was premiered at Celtic Connections in 2014. To create this beautifully coherent piece of work, Sara Hayes has set traditional words to new tunes and new tunes to traditional forms, tying them together lovingly with a series of recurring themes and motifs. The music is strikingly fresh and original, drawing on influences as diverse as folk/traditional, classical/chamber and modern jazz, with hints of Philip Glass/Steve Reich/Brian Eno ambience/minimalism.
Another Celtic Connections gig, in the elegant Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow on 22nd January, provided the first opportunity since its release to hear the entire "Woven" album played live. For this performance, Sarah Hayes (keyboards, flute, whistle and lead vocals) was joined by the talented band of musicians who played on the album, namely Fiona MacAskill (fiddle and harmony vocals), Mairearad Green (accordion and harmony vocals), Ali Hutton (acoustic guitar), James Lindsay (double bass) and Phil Hague (drums and percussion), plus Iain Sandilands (percussion).
Just as the "Woven" album is designed to be listened to as a cohesive whole, so this live performance proceeded with no breaks between the tunes and songs. The result was an utterly compelling and absorbing listening experience, as the fifteen segments of the album were delivered impeccably by the Woven band, with composer and arranger Sarah Hayes at the helm.
The performance was a delight from start to finish, with the gifted seven-piece band proving to be so much more than the sum of its parts. I have referenced some personal highlights to provide a flavour of this very fine gig. The opening tune, "The Fell Line", was a prime example of the musical virtuosity on offer, with the rhythmic urgency of the opening section, driven by staccato piano chords and full of delicious counterpoints and flourishes, giving way to a more sedate closing passage featuring some beautiful flute. "The Trees They Grow Tall" provided the first opportunity to hear Sarah Hayes' graceful and heartfelt vocals, as she sang of the heartbreak of a young widow reflecting on the loss of her husband and the prospect of raising the baby boy he left behind. This song also featured a soaring instrumental passage between the second and final verses. After a sombre opening section, Sarah's sprightly electric piano ushered in the chant-like "Sair Fyel'd Hinny", featuring wistful vocals from Sarah and lovely harmonies from Fiona and Mairearad. Plucked fiddle, counterpoint bass and subtle shades of accordion accompanied Sarah's enchanting vocals on "Deep In Love", where the depth of a young woman's love is compared to the depth of the sea.
"The Daffodil/Greenwood Laddie" kicked off in joyful, sea shanty-like fashion, with breezy accordion and sweetly trilling flute, before giving way to Sarah's pure and clear vocals, underpinned by more playful accordion. "Jute Mill Song" was punctuated by jazzy riffs and sparkling fiddle breaks. "Mill Race" was a real toe-tapper, with lovely interplay between Fiona's fiddle and Sarah's breathy flute. "Fall Of The Leaf", sung against a light-touch piano accompaniment, was a poignantly gentle reflection on man's mortality.
There was a welcome reprise of "The Fell Line" towards the end of the performance, but this time incorporating a heavily percussive bridge and ending with a captivating repeated choral refrain, "....the life of a man, the fall of a leaf.....". The hauntingly beautiful melody of the closing "Irene's" was written as a moving tribute to Sarah's late grandmother (Nan), to whom the whole "Woven" album is dedicated.
Having kept respectfully quiet throughout the forty-five minute performance, the audience burst into loud and enthusiastic applause and acclaim as the closing notes faded and Sarah Hayes and her band-mates took several well-deserved bows.
It was a privilege to be present at this stunning live performance of Sarah Hayes' remarkable debut album. "Woven" is a tour de force and has signalled Sarah Hayes' emergence as one of the most accomplished musicians, singers, composers and arrangers currently working in Scotland.
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