Celtic Connections: Return To Y'Hup: The World of Ivor Cutler, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Wed 29 Jan
- Stewart Smith
- 4 February 2020
The work of cult poet, songwriter and humorist Ivor Cutler comes to life through music, drawings, animation and magical performances
All-star tribute shows are a Celtic Connections tradition, but Return To Y'Hup veers away from the folk and rock canon to celebrate the world of cult poet, songwriter and humorist Ivor Cutler. Masterminded by Raymond MacDonald (Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra), Matt Brennan (Citizen Bravo), Malcolm Benzie (eagleowl) and Andy Monaghan (Frightened Rabbit), the project revisits Cutler's 1959 debut, Ivor Cutler of Y'Hup, alongside a choice selection of the late Scottish surrealist's classics. Cutler's songs and spoken word pieces are transformed from their minimalist origins into anything from indie-pop and rickety punk, to bossa nova and avant-folk. His sampled voice is occasionally woven into the mix, alongside pre-recorded contributions from his collaborators Phyllis King and Robert Wyatt.
The album, released by Chemikal Underground, is charming, but it's as a live show that the imaginary island of Y'Hup really comes to life. The house band is joined by a host of Scottish indie and folk luminaries, with Cutler's own harmonium – which we learn is actually a First World War field organ – taking centre stage. Anna Miles' drawings and animations help set the scene, but it's with the third song, 'Mary Is A Cow', that the magic really starts to happen. As the band plays, several of the performers walk out into the auditorium wielding cowbells, filling the space with bucolic jangling. The deeper we venture into Y'Hup's interior, the stranger its inhabitants become. Kapil Seshasayee introduces us to the three-legged Yam with a flourish of Carnatic guitar, while Heather Leigh invokes the headless, wingless 'Boo Boo Bird' in her otherworldly soprano, with MacDonald cycling through abstracted birdsong on alto saxophone.
Never merely whimsical, Cutler's writing has an existentialist edge to it that invites comparison to peers like Ian Hamilton Finlay and Alasdair Gray. The spoken word piece 'Gruts' – deftly recited by Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch – is a dialogue between a father and son about the ghastly foraged food that has become their staple diet. Its hilarity is shot through with a keen sense of the privation of the post-war years. Sung by the entire company, 'Women Of The World Take Over' becomes an anthem for the era of Johnson and Trump. Geopolitics aside, there are numerous reminders of how touching Cutler's songs can be, not least with James Yorkston's tender reading of 'A Real Man', accompanied by the wheezing chordal drones of a sarangi.
The overall mood, however, is one of profound fun. MacDonald's massive grin radiates enough warmth to power the national grid, and the audience leaves the Concert Hall at one with Cutler's beautiful cosmos.
Reviewed at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Main Auditorium on Wed 29 Jan.