A Powerful Live Performance by Scottish Songwriter Karine Polwart: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

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April 10, 2019 | Suraya Mohamed — Scottish singer, songwriter and essayist Karine Polwart seldom comes stateside. She prefers to limit air travel in order to minimize her carbon footprint. She took exception, however, to fly from Edinburgh to New York City to participate in the Carnegie Hall Migrations festival, a celebration of the history of the movement of people all around the world. Polwart and her brother, guitarist Steven Polwart and multi-instrumentalist, Inge Thomson, then escaped New York for a day to play the Tiny Desk here in Washington, D.C.

Polwart writes songs about hope, music that harnesses spiritual power and lyrics that address important social justice themes. Stories of human emotion and the human experience are also commonplace as in the first tune, “Ophelia.”

“There’s a wind in from the desert
Red dust blows across the sun
It bleeds into the evening
We watch it from the garden
Your hair glints in the strange yellow light
We let go of all our fighting
Ophelia”

Her second song at the desk, “I Burn But I Am Not Consumed,” includes a mesmerizing spoken word denunciation of President Donald Trump, while the closing tune, “King of Birds,” praises the power of small things. In it Polwart recounts the legend of a wren who piggybacks a lift on an eagle’s wing. Just as the large bird is unable to fly any higher in the sky, the tiny wren catches a breath of air, soars higher than the eagle and is crowned the king of all birds.

“At Ludgate Hill
where the towers of smoke and mirrors bruise the sky
the pilgrims huddle in
as the tiny King of Birds begins to cry
the people start to sing
to light glory in the dark
to ring the bell
and to breathe hope in every heart”

Lyricism and messages of hope and beauty heard throughout punctuate a stunning accompaniment of inventive instrumentation. The steady, resonant guitar riffs played by Steven Polwart ground the delicate vocal harmonies. Inge Thomson’s accordion lines, combined with an array of percussion instruments and synth-generated effects, add a complimentary layer of sound without overpowering the music. Karine Polwart’s bellowing and drone-like Shruti box provides a sweet serenity.

This performance will quite likely inspire you to learn more about Polwart. The NPR program, The Thistle and Shamrock often features her music. This recent episode features cuts from Polwart’s latest album, plus her ideas on movement and migration.

SET LIST
“Ophelia”
“I Burn But I Am Not Consumed”
“King of Birds”

MUSICIANS
Karine Polwart: vocals, guitar, shruti box; Steven Polwart: guitar, vocals; Inge Thomson: accordion, percussion, noises, vocals

CREDITS
Producers: Suraya Mohamed, Morgan Noelle Smith ; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Beck Harlan, CJ Riculan; Production Assistant: Adelaide Sandstrom; Photo: Amir Alfiky/NPR

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