Sometimes there is only a thin line that separates traditional folk from modern New Age. Music rooted in the pre-electric era lends itself to quietude and the emulation of natural sounds like the wind and waves. Some record companies even market their acoustic folk artists as types of New Age musicians (Windham Hill tried to expand their roster with several such acts, such as John Gorka, in the past). Some New Age artists (such as Patrick O’Hearn and Liz Story) have freely borrowed themes and motifs from folk music. The results can be rewarding (think Enya), but more often the result comes off as boring folk or less than inspiring New Age. The Scottish band Capercaillie walks that thin line, and not always successfully. The group’s best work results when it decides to play wholly in one style or the other, not when they try to merge the two, and Capercaillie’s folk efforts far supersede the band’s New Age work.
While Capercaillie has undergone many personnel changes during the past twenty years, co-founders Donald Shaw (accordion/keyboards) and Karen Matheson (vocals) have remained constant. Shaw may be more important for his leadership and his ability to attract talent than his instrumental virtuosity, as the band has included a number of high caliber fiddle, flute, tin whistle, and pipe players over the years. And it’s Matheson’s distinctive ethereal voice that makes Capercaillie easily identifiable from other Gaelic bands. The actor Sean Connery once described it as “a throat that is surely touched by God”, and while those across the pond are prone to overstatement, Connery correctly noted the otherworldliness of Matheson’s vocals.
This double-disc anthology goes backwards, starting with selections from the band’s most recent disc (Secret Language from 2003) and ending with a song from their first release (Cascade from 1984). The reasons for this are unclear, but this likens the process of listening to a stripping down affair as the instrumentation and material become less modern. The synthesizers and complex structures found in the opening cuts, such as traditional “Mile Marbaisg” and “Mo Chaiin Dileas Donn” make the songs far less interesting and compelling than the more simply arranged tracks, such as “Sidewaulk Reels” and “Oh Mo Dhuthaich” from the Capercaillie of the 1980s.
The most recent tracks are also more likely to be New Age rather than folk oriented, and there is nothing very unique about Capercaillie’s New Age efforts. Matheson’s voice loses its inimitable features as she becomes a sort of Enya-light clone instead of the matchless Scottish lass with waiflike intonations. The instrumentation becomes cheesier as the distinctive Celtic flavor leans toward generic world music.
However, Capercaillie’s transformation does not quite follow the linear progression described. The band still performs traditional folk music in the 21st century, and some of the group’s material from twenty years ago has a New Age feel. Capercaillie’s output over the years reveals trends not only in their sound, but that of the broader field itself. On one hand, Celtic music has never been more popular in the United States than it is now. On the other, almost everyone acknowledges that the golden age occurred decades ago when bands like DeDannan, The Bothy Band, Clannad, and such emerged from independent record labels and made the world take notice. To survive, a band has to experiment and grow. Grace and Pride shows the risks and challenges Capercaillie has faced. The band’s continued existence when so many have fallen to the wayside reveals their tenacity and talent.