Eddi Reader, Cristal Palace, Ayr

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The Independent Culture

As the soft dusk light filters through the stained glass of Ayr's intimate, circular Cristal Palace, I swear there's magic in the air. Together with her "brothel" folk band and string players from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Eddi Reader is here on Ayr's seafront to open the Burns an' a' That! festival. Given that she's just recorded an album of Robert Burns's songs (Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns on Rough Trade), and recently spoke of friendly visitations from the long-deceased bard, she's just the lass to do so.

If you want to draw a Scots audience in, few things will work better than an a cappella verse of "Auld Lang Syne." This is how Reader begins, and it's a measure of her talent and local stature that she's able to do so. Reader's reading of the Burns-penned song is majestically wistful, the tune and lyric spanning more than 200 years of social history, and hitting an exiled Scot like myself squarely between left and right ventricle. When the strings come in then build to a crescendo that re-harmonises the vocal melody, it's all too beautiful. Barely five minutes in and I'm dewy-eyed, but it feels great to connect with music that knows who I am.

Although born in Glasgow, Reader, like Burns, spent formative years in Irvine, Ayrshire. This helps explain her identification with him, and grants her an easy rapport with tonight's crowd. Between songs, she's constantly interacting with us, and the senior citizens - this is a nine-to-90 type gathering - respond well to the melancholy grandeur of "John Anderson My Jo", which Reader says Burns wrote for "an auld woman to sing to an auld man. I think it would be great to get to 88 and be with the same person."

These early selections underline the unabashed romanticism that figures in many Burns songs. But there's much more on offer, too, and Reader soon taps into the flirtatious joie de vivre of "Jamie Come Try Me", the politically charged "Ye Jacobites", and the bawdy stomp that is "Charlie is My Darling".

Having both classical and traditional players on stage is a masterstroke, the former providing precision and schooled authority, the latter adding authenticity and a sanguine earthiness. They combine brilliantly, too, notably on "Brose and Butter", which we're told is about "playing with yourself", and contains lines that "your mother wouldn't sing, but your Grannie might." The fiddler John McCusker is inspirational as he seamlessly grafts a Michael McGoldrick reel to the tune, while further in, the classical players add a spooky, soaring counterpoint that recalls Robert Kirby's choice string arrangements for Nick Drake.

Reader complains of a dry throat, but is mesmerising throughout. She's evangelical about the universal appeal of Burns's songs, and her harmless, ghostly romance with him is clearly on-going. The final encore is "Wild Mountainside", a magnificent ode to Caledonia written by John Douglas, a member of the contemporary Scots band Trash Can Sinatras.

As Reader's affection for the song cements a truly moving rendition, McCusker and Phil Cunningham contribute magical whistle harmonies, and the crowd melts yet again.