Queens Hall, Edinburgh, Saturday 11th June 2011 concert reviewed by Lins Honeyman.
Iona rolled away the years last night as their eight date UK tour neared its end at Edinburgh's Queens Hall and, despite a lower than desired turnout, the Celtic fusion veterans had the enthusiastic and appreciative audience eating out of their hands in a show that confirms the band still have what it takes and more.
Glasgow-based singer/songwriter Yvonne Lyon, assisted by her husband and fellow songwriter David, opened the evening with a short acoustic set which included the current single "The Coffee Song" and the optimistic "Everything's Fine". Performed with Lyon's inimitable laid back sincerity, her songs lifted the cold, rain-soaked Scottish crowd and her skilled delivery betrayed the fact that she has become one of Scotland's premier artists - or, as Iona lead singer Joanne Hogg put it on the night, "a Scottish treasure" - thanks to no small amount of hard graft over the years.
From the moment Iona walked onto the stage and launched into new song "The Ancient Wells", it was clear that the band were glad to be back together and on the road again. No doubt aware that they had much to prove thanks to their time away from the spotlight and the fact that a show of hands confirmed that a sizeable chunk of the audience had never previously seen Iona live, the group dazzled and enthralled soon after with a set of jigs and reels that even had a small section of the normally reticent Edinburgh crowd up dancing.
The sheer chemistry and respect shared between founding members Hogg (vocals, piano) and Dave Bainbridge (lead guitar, bouzouki, keyboards), together with Phil Barker on bass, drummer-cum-violinist Frank Van Essen and relative new boy Martin Nolan on pipes and whistles, was plain to see and made for an evening of virtuoso performances. Special mention must go to Joanne Hogg's spine-tingling vocal delivery that seems to have embodied the theme of the new album by stepping into another realm - in fact, a constant of the current tour is the acknowledgment by many that the Ballymena singer had never sounded better. In addition, Martin Nolan proved that he has not only succeeded in the considerable task of filling former member Troy Donockley's shoes but, thanks to his natural Irish good humour and his ability to make those Uillean pipes swoop and soar, he also adds a completely new dimension to the band's overall sound and persona.
Keen to honour their longstanding fans, Iona made sure that past glories were revisited with sublime performances of the likes of "Today" and "Edge Of The World" (from the 1993 album 'Beyond These Shores') before celebrating the band's 20 year existence with a stirring rendition of "Flight Of The Wild Goose" from the band's eponymous debut all those years ago. A spotless version of "Bi-Se I Mo Shuil (Part 2)" showcased the band's innate aptitude at handling mind-boggling time signatures whilst Nolan and Bainbridge, as they had done for most of the night, played a range of complex melodies completely in unison without dropping a stitch.
Despite these echoes of the past, it was material from their new album 'Another Realm' that proved to be the highlight of the evening and hammered home the point that this band still have their best years ahead of them should they decide to continue working and touring together. New songs like the album's title track and "An Atmosphere Of Miracles (Part 3)" had people flocking to the merchandise table at the end to purchase an album that could easily match the popularity of classic Iona releases such as 'The Book Of Kells'.
Whilst there has always been an over-arching spiritual aspect to their music, Hogg in particular didn't miss a chance to acknowledge where the inspiration for her songs came from with her introductions for new tracks such as "And The Angels Dance" and "White Horse" - a prog rock telling of Christ's return - pointing most decidedly towards Jesus. At times, despite the concert's secular setting, proceedings literally moved into another dimension and were elevated from being merely a music event to a time of spirit-filled worship. Although this may have left some regular gig-goers somewhat puzzled or uncomfortable, it certainly made for an electric and unforgettable atmosphere.
Before Nolan and Bainbridge left the crowd with some musical Ovaltine (as coined by Nolan) in the form of the soothing "Air From France", Hogg summed up the fact that they had all been in the presence of God over the last few hours by explaining that the following evening they would be playing Glasgow's King Tut's Wah Wah Hut. "I suspect though," said Hogg, pausing for effect, "that there will be an altogether different King there that night."
No doubt there will also be yet another awestruck audience that will experience and cherish an incredible performance from one of Celtic music's finest exponents.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.