Sometimes in order to move forward you have to take a step back. This is a sentiment that Capercaillie takes to heart. Hailing from across the pond, the Scotland natives have been known to record songs written more than 400 years ago. Specializing in the traditional Celtic and Gaelic music of their homeland for almost 20 years, Capercaillie has been able to establish a particularly unique foundation in the world of music. But as their latest album, Choice Language, and an Oct. 1 performance at Philadelphia’s Calvary Center, show Capercaillie is hardly a band stuck in the past.
“The first couple of albums we did were very traditional,” founding member Donald Shaw said. “But your influences change you know? We got to a situation where we were quite excited at the idea of contemporize a lot of the tunes.”
The songs on Choice Language prove that Shaw and Co. are still able to capitalize on their excitement and create a broad, original sound with one foot still firmly planted in the past. The band, which includes multi-instrumentalists Shaw, Manus Lunny and Michael McGoldrick, singer Karen Matheson, fiddler Charlie McKerron, bassist Ewen Vernal, drummer Che Beresford and percussionist David Robertson are able to reinterpret the sounds of a bygone era and give them a smooth modern polish.
Treading this line can be a precarious one, and it does present some difficulties for the band.
“You have to be careful about doing stuff that has the same feel,” Shaw said in regards to how the band decides what traditional pieces to include with their own original compositions. “It’s not a quick process. We might have to mess around with a song for quite a while before we get it sauced.”
One of the most obvious amalgams of sound on Choice Language is “The Old Crone (Port na Caillich).” Matheson’s voice floats on air as it mingles with the band’s fast paced fiddle and flute interplay, all atop a sample sounding beat that is just this side of dancey. Other songs, such as, “The Boy Who,” and, “The Sound of Sleat,” use chilled modern loops as a counterpoint to the traditional sounds of the instruments.
Capercaillie use the studio as a subtle instrument, but at their core, they are practitioners of a sound that was around long before anyone even thought of recorded music. This makes for some interesting changes in their live show.
“It’s not big samples and loops and stuff,” Shaw said about the live sound. “We do that a lot on the album; but live, we try to keep it as live as possible.”
This exclusion of the strictly studio elements allows the band a great deal of freedom on stage.
“There were times when we tried using backing tacks and stuff, but it was never as much fun,” Shaw said. “[With samples], you can’t change what your doing. This way we can evolve the tunes as we go.”
They turn their what some might call old style into a huge, rompous sound one moment, then a crushing somber ballad the next. Creating such a dynamic sound on stage is no small task. It seems to necessitate a band with eight members.
“It’s probably logistically and economically ridiculous for some of the gigs we’re doing in the states,” Shaw said, “But we kind of thought, ‘Oh, what the hell.’ This is what we’re doing right now. It might be a bit of a squeeze, but it’s really enjoyable.”
It was just that sort of exciting live performance that has kept traditional music alive for hundreds of years. And while studio experimentation may be fun, Capercaillie know exactly what tradition they are coming from.
“That will always be part of the sound,” Shaw said. “We’ll always use the root music to do what we do.”
Robert James Algeo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.