Celtic Connections review - Rant: Fiona Hunter: Shooglenifty
January without Celtic Connections has been unthinkable for many years now. So, the festival’s necessary conversion to an online event for its 2021 iteration will be a boon to musicians and audiences alike.
Creative producer Donald Shaw rather undersold his role when he suggested that he had become a low-budget television producer. In Friday’s opening night introduction, Glasgow – indoors and out – looked fabulous and the arrival of piping ensemble Tryst, processing up Buchanan Street and into the festival’s home, the Royal Concert Hall, is likely to become emblematic of an event triumphing over a pandemic.
On Saturday, two more venues long associated with the festival hosted gigs whose visual and sound qualities made “attending” Celtic Connections at home a privilege. Shooglenifty filled the Old Fruitmarket, if not with the adoring boogie-ing fans they’re accustomed to, then with their continent-crossing grooves and fiddle and mandolin melodising.
Situated somewhere between Lochaber, the Middle East and Rajhastan the music’s nomadic nature was enhanced by Hunting for Angus’ litany of kitchens, bars, villages and countries where their late fiddler and figurehead, Angus R Grant might be found when rehearsals beckoned.
On either side, from the City Hall, came two class acts. Rant began as a group of pals convening for a tune informally and quickly mutated into a fiddle quartet with its own instantly recognisable, brilliantly considered, beautifully arranged approach.
Playing tunes both from within the group and from the tradition, Lauren MacColl, sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid and Anna Massie played music with energy, harmony and gorgeous shape, using pizzicato phrases to emphasise melodic and rhythmic depth and contours while the collective bowing delivered atmosphere, crisp attack and clear group empathy.
There was empathy, too, in the arrangements accompanying Fiona Hunter’s singing of ballads and a beautiful reading of the ill-starred Robert Tannahill’s heartfelt song of longing, Through Cold Bloomin’ Februar [correct spelling]. Hunter delivers ancient narratives with a relish, timing and understanding bordering on first-hand reportage while Mike Vass’ judicious guitar figures and Tom Gibbs’ skilful piano playing added pace and embellishment to create a near-cinematic experience.
From The Times, January 18, 2021
McCreadie tops international chart
Fergus McCreadie (photo by Dave Stapleton)
Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie has scored an early hit with his trio’s second album more than a month before it is officially released.
A video featuring the album’s title track, Cairn has reached No 1 in the influential Amazon Fresh Jazz playlist ahead of the popular Canadian singer Laila Biali and Miami-based jazz-electronica duo Twyn.
The playlist is compiled by Amazon’s music experts and has previously been topped by artists including Branford Marsalis and the Hot 8 Brass Band.
“It’s amazing news,” says McCreadie whose debut album, Turas won both the UK’s leading jazz prize, the Parliamentary Jazz Awards Album of the Year, and Best Album at the Scottish Jazz Awards in 2019. Turas also reached the Scottish Album of the Year shortlist, a rare feat for a jazz release.
“When we recorded the new album back in January, I felt it was a progression from the first one. It felt more mature. We’d been touring a lot and I thought that showed in the way we worked more closely together. There was just a slight worry that, because Turas was so well received, people might listen to the new one and say it wasn’t as good. But the response so far has been really, really positive.”
Respected observers including Jez Nelson and Chris Philips of Jazz FM have already tipped Cairn to be one of the most significant UK jazz releases of 2021. The album is also McCreadie’s first recording for the highly respected Edition Records label, having self-released Turas while still a student on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
McCreadie, who added the Best Instrumentalist title at the Scottish Jazz Awards in October this year to his achievements, has had several high-profile gigs postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic. His trio, with David Bowden (bass) and Stephen Henderson (drums), were due to appear at Rochester Jazz Festival in New York in June and at the massive Love Supreme festival in the south of England in July.
However, the trio, which headlined at Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival in 2019, has already recorded a video for the prestigious Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, which is being held online in January.
“Everything was going well until the first lockdown caused live music to stop,” says McCreadie. “But musicians all over the world are in the same situation. We’re hoping that Rochester and Love Supreme can be rescheduled. It’s also fantastic to be part of a major event like Celtic Connections with its world-wide audience. So, with the new album due on January 29, it would be good to think we can pick up the momentum we created before the pandemic.”
Among the snippets of information I didn’t imagine gleaning from Bruce Lindsay’s book about Norfolk folk singers Sam Larner and Harry Cox is that, at the beginning of the 1960s, Harry took on the job of coypu control in the local marshland.
In the grand scheme of things, this is possibly trivia and the South American, beaver-like rodents, which, it turns out, once proliferated in the Norfolk broads to the point of nuisance, don’t seem to have played any significant role in Mr Cox’s story beyond this, probably brief, job.
But it illustrates the sort of research that Lindsay has put into capturing the lives of two men who never achieved household name status but who possibly played crucial parts in the lives of others who did. As bearers of traditional songs, they can quite likely be credited with passing on – via Ewan MacColl - The Black Velvet Band, a 1967 chart success for the Dubliners, and The Wild Rover, with which everyone with even the slightest knowledge of folksong is familiar.
Lindsay does a great job of putting flesh on the bones of Larner and Cox’s characters. His research has been assiduous and he takes the reader right into the homes the two men created, and where they worked up their songs and later held court, and into the village pubs. There they took part in sessions, singing, step dancing (Larner on the tables, Cox more discreetly) and, in Harry’s case, played fiddle and melodeon and operated his jig dolls.
If his coypu ridding shows a minor side of Cox’s resourcefulness and practicality, the jig dolls are more central to this. Wooden dolls that could be made to dance on a plank of wood held under the operator’s buttocks while he or she sang or diddled, jig dolls were popular in different parts of the UK, and possibly further afield. Anyone who saw the great Scottish folk group Jock Tamson’s Bairns in their pomp will have encountered their concertina-player-whistle-player-percussionist Norman Chalmers’ dancing wooden figures.
The two singers, despite being close contemporaries (Larner born in 1878, Cox in 1885) and living only a few miles apart, never met. They seem to have had quite different natures, as their step dancing preferences show. Larner was a fisherman who followed the shoals of herring from Yarmouth round Britain to the Atlantic and who revelled in the sailor’s girl in every port reputation. His wife, who went blind, may have paid the price of his unfaithfulness.
Cox, on the other hand, was more stolid, a farm worker who was astute enough to negotiate his own terms as a self-employed man, a bit better off than most rural workers.
Both men survived from the Victorian era, served their country in the First World and lived to see the 1960s, along the way encountering song collectors and without becoming rich through their music, coming into contact with music promoters and recorders of varying degrees of scrupulousness.
Among happier associations Lindsay details were the “man who recorded the world” American Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. MacColl based his classic song The Shoals of Herring on Larner’s memories (Peggy enlarged upon his “twinkle eyed” demeanour by describing him as ”randy”) and both Larner and Cox had an input in MacColl and Seeger’s radio ballads series.
Sam and Harry’s influence extended into inspiring some of the outstanding singers of the folk revival. Shirley Collins, Frankie Armstrong, Martin Carthy and the late Peter Bellamy all learned from the techniques the Norfolk men developed naturally that make singing – or “telling” – narrative songs as much of an art form as opera or lieder.
The book works as a very readable and often fascinating source of both folk music lore and social history and while its subjects’ lives were largely based in a small part of East Anglia, its reach extends to some legendary London folk pubs and Shetland, where Sam won singing competitions while on shore leave from herring fishing. Recommended reading for anyone interested in folk song, folk singing and where folk singers got their songs from.
Published by Equinox
Thunderstruck helps take word of piping genius worldwide
When Gordon Duncan introduced his arrangement for bagpipes of the AC/DC song Thunderstruck at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999, he was probably expecting to make mischievous ripples rather than waves that have washed up on four continents and inspired an international award-winning play.
An essentially shy, quiet man who had earned his own international reputation as a piper while holding down a job as a refuse collector in Pitlochry, Gordon was a self-effacing virtuoso. A journalist once described Gordon’s fluency on the pipes as akin to the great jazz musician Charlie Parker’s playing on the alto saxophone, only to be gently rebuffed by Gordon’s suggestion that the journalist stop being so daft.
It wasn’t such a daft comparison because Gordon took the pipes to a level of proficiency and expression up there with Dame Evelyn Glennie’ on percussion or Nicola Benedetti’s on violin. Not everyone valued Gordon’s ability to play on the pipes apparently any piece of music – or any musical scale – he could hear in his imagination.
His first album, Just for Seamus, was dedicated to a piping competition adjudicator who had responded to Gordon’s free-wheeling brilliance by saying that if this was where piping was heading, he wished he himself had taken up the fiddle instead.
Plenty of others did appreciate Gordon’s musicality and compositional flair, though. By the time he unleashed Thunderstruck, Gordon’s tunes such as Andy Renwick’s Ferret and The Sleeping Tune were so popular with other musicians and folk bands that they had virtually passed into the tradition, possibly the ultimate compliment for a composer in the traditional music style.
In terms of audacity, Thunderstruck arguably surpassed everything Gordon had produced to date, even his magnificent Pressed for Time. On first hearing, at that Edinburgh Festival concert in 1999, Thunderstruck appeared to encompass such staples of the electric guitarist’s art as feedback and whammy bar manipulation. Although signed off with a grin and a casual mopping of the brow, the performance itself was a tacit challenge to “follow that”.
And many have taken up the challenge. Go onto the internet and you will find Australian buskers playing Thunderstruck on bagpipes whose drones spit flames. There’s a version that marries dubstep and Indian traditions with Gordon’s inspiration and others that feature Spain’s Rondalla Santa Eulalia de Mos pipe band both taking it onto the streets and choreographing it extravagantly in a theatre.
And while the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, formed by a Gordon devotee, now retired, used Thunderstruck as a blueprint for taking rock music on bagpipes onto the international touring circuit with their bagrock schtick, possibly the ultimate tribute is to have the six times world champions, Canada’s Simon Fraser University Pipe Band playing Thunderstruck.
It was, after all, the pipe band arena where Gordon developed much of his boldness for musical arrangement. As the musical director of the vale of Atholl Pipe Band, while still in his teens, Gordon began to introduce the music and techniques he heard in Ireland, Brittany and Galicia into the Scottish piping lexicon.
Fife-born actor, and piper, David Colvin was a member of the Lochgelly High School Pipe Band when he first encountered Gordon. His admiration for his hero has led to him writing and performing in a play, Thunderstruck, that has now won major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe and at festivals in Adelaide and Perth in Australia.
David’s play, which was due to feature at this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in Scotland before the current health crisis, tells the story of his own experiences in pipe bands (and contains language that, he concedes, follows the saying that “you can take the boy out of Ballingry but you can’t take Ballingry out of the boy”).
Gordon’s presence hovers throughout the piece, though, and David, who acted and played the pipes in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, is enough of a musician to play Thunderstruck towards the end.
“I’m not Gordon Duncan and wouldn’t claim to be,” he says. “The play wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t play the tune it’s named after but the reason the play came about was to try and spread the word more widely about this fantastic musician who was known around the world in piping and traditional music circles but is largely unappreciated by the general public.”
Winning a coveted Herald Angel at the Edinburgh Fringe last year for the play was a thrill for David as Gordon, who died in 2005, had been given the same recognition, as had Gordon’s father, the ballad singer Jock Duncan, and his brother, Ian, in his capacity as pipe major of the Vale of Atholl band.
“People who’ve been to see the play often say, Wow, an AC/DC tune on the pipes and it’s great that they appreciate what Gordon did with that arrangement,” says David. “What I hope they’ll go on to discover, though, is that Gordon’s audaciousness created a lot more truly fantastic music. He was an amazing composer and a real musical visionary. If Thunderstruck, the play, inspires people to investigate Gordon’s music, I’ll have done my job.”
From The Courier, Saturday, March 28, 2020