Forget Seth Lakeman, Seasick Steve or Natalie Merchant. At this year's Cambridge Folk Festival, Julie Fowlis from the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist stole the show.
Singing in Scottish Gaelic on a Saturday afternoon, accompanied by her bouzouki-playing husband, Eamon Doorley (from the Irish band Danu), the much-venerated fiddler Duncan Chisholm, guitarist Tony Byrne and bodhran drummer Martin O'Neill, her whirling reels of melody warmed the slightly rain-dampened festival like sunlight.
Performing songs from her latest album, Uam, with huge energy, Fowlis regaled us with ancient folk tales passed down from the tiny Gaelic-speaking community she grew up in.
"Here's a very sad story about a hunter who, mistaking a flash of white for a bird, shoots it, before realising he's shot and killed the love of his life, who was wearing a white apron," she said, to a putty-like audience. But the spell broke when her husband remarked: "Should have gone to Specsavers!" and a still-laughing quintet launched into "A Mhic Dhughaill 'ic Ruairidh".
The band were as tight as O'Neill's bodhran, their playing speed escalating until strumming hands became a blur. Fowlis narrated her songs in English: "This one's about being sick on a boat" or "This is about a pair of new shoes". When her rich voice wasn't ringing out, she picked up her penny whistle and replaced its gravity-defying pitch with merry trilling.
The audience stumbled badly when asked to sing along with what sounded like "He-ra-vo-hra-ha-ha-ho," part of a tweed-spinner's song called "Oganaich Uir A Rinn M' Fhagail", most of us trailing off to a few "la-las", but clapping vigorously.
On Sunday, Fowlis made a surprise appearance with Scottish-Cuban-fusion band Salsa Celtica, to huge applause. She played another full set that evening, lulling a clamouring crowd into a sweet state of exhaustion. "Join in if you know the words," Doorley joked. And we really tried.Reuse content