(Left to right: Phillipe Barnes, Toby Kearnes, Emma Sweeney, Ben Cashell and Orlaith McAuliffe)
Words and photograph by Rebbecca Neofitou
Like most Songlines readers, I first heard Emma Sweeney’s ‘The Singing Kettle’ on the April/May 2013 (#91) Top of the World CD and was instantly attracted to her fast paced style of fiddle playing and was eager to see her replicate this live. Hailing from Manchester, she delivered a set full of gems from her recent album, Pangea, as well as other traditional Irish jigs and reels that the band decided to play on the spot.
A very relaxed looking Emma Sweeney opened the show with Toby Kearnes on percussion and Philippe Barnes on guitar. Unlike the album, which obviously focuses on Emma’s playing, the balance between all three instruments was equal, and they naturally blended very well together. Emma’s control of the fiddle was enviable, and it really seemed an extension of her arm as she played through speedy, intricate phrases and slides with gentle ease.
The band were later joined by Orlaith McAuliffe on flute and eventually Ben Cashell on cello. Cashell decided to perform a vocal piece whilst playing his cello, which was very brave. His voice itself was very resonant and deep, yet flowed very well. We were also treated to a vocal performance by Sweeney in the song ‘The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’, showing us that her light and pretty melodies were not only limited to her fiddle playing. They gave a performance of ‘The Singing Kettle’, which was adapted from the recording to make it an ensemble piece rather than melody and accompaniment and it worked stunningly well.
Between each piece, Emma would tell a short anecdote, which created a very intimate setting with her audience. She mentioned her time that she spent in an orphanage in India and how much she enjoyed working with the children and teaching them Irish melodies on the penny whistle whilst they taught her popular Bollywood tunes. This has clearly influenced her style of composition, seen greatly in the piece ‘Pangea’ which she performed at the end of the gig. Like a sitar player, she took to a raised platform on the floor and commenced a Indian classical style musical conversation with the guitar, holding the fiddle close to her body rather than up at her chin. This was a stunningly improvised piece and the communication between the two of them was well balanced as they took their time over the few notes they played with each response. The phrasing and long microtonal slides captured the style very well before the piece developed into the Irish music that she does so well. Despite the very reserved audience, Emma and her band delivered an enjoyable and diverse performance that held interest and demonstrated great talent.