Runrig, Cambridge Corn Exchange, 27 February 2016
There can be a particular pleasure in going to a gig without knowing anything about the band. No preconceptions, no expectations. This isn’t an up-and-coming band in a pub back room, however. It’s Gaelic legends Runrig, a band with a 40-year history, celebrating what may (or may not, they don’t always seem entirely decided) be their last hurrah. Their latest album The Story is a summation and a reflection of their career to date.No band that’s been together for 40 years and counting could possibly be lithe young teens, but they’re looking great from the front row of the balcony. They play a full-on 2-hour set and look as if they could happily carry on all night. The energy is ferocious and the musicianship outstanding. Malcolm Jones’s guitar playing runs the gamut from subtle atmospherics to full on rocking out and Iain Bayne and Calum MacDonald, drummer and percussionist respectively, are probably the best I’ve seen. Their drum battle is staggering in its skill and complexity.
I’m crowd-watching, looking for audience clues to tip me off about which songs are old favourites. What’s immediately obvious is how much the audience really loves this band. The hair may be greying on and off stage, but passions still run deep. Watching all these people clapping, singing, arms aloft or hugging one another is really moving.
The stunning and immaculately timed light show reinforces just how well-planned and rehearsed this gig is, no matter how “spontaneous” it might appear. Gorgeous back projections reinforce how essential Runrig’s strong sense of place is to them. The Years We Shared is backed with snippets of home video and this, along with many of the songs, is interwoven with visual reminders of island life. Scenes from WWII and fields of poppies during Rise And Fall strike a deep emotional note and there is much noticeable sniffing and eye-wiping by the end.
The band’s sound is very full, vocal harmonies are heavily reverbed but tight. Main singer Bruce Guthro has a bit more showbiz swagger than the others along with rich, effortlessly powerful vocals. Bassist and singer Rory MacDonald’s pleasing tenor takes over for the Gaelic lyrics, though first encore When The Beauty seems strangely sung slightly below his natural range, flattening it out slightly.
Whether the band really does call it a day or not, there’s an endearing honesty to the general air of uncertainty. If it is the end, I’m delighted to have caught such a highly skilled, highly professional group of musicians at their peak. I’m sure long-standing fans will be saddened, but they couldn’t be too disappointed by such a generous, emotion-packed farewell.