Breabach - Bound for glory
Ewan Robertson is looking back at the BBC’s Hogmanay show and considering the opportunity it gave his band Breabach.
“You don’t really think about the audience at home because you don’t know what camera’s on and what’s actually being broadcast,” he says. “So we really just played for the people who were there and enjoyed ourselves, because that’s what we always do on a gig. It’s only later that you think, well, we were only on for two and a half minutes but how many people were watching and how many of them were seeing and hearing us for the first time? And it’s a great calling card. With a bit of luck, there would be people checking us out on the internet afterwards - possibly wondering how to spell our name first - and maybe looking to see where we’re playing or if we have CDs available.”
The answer to the last part of that question is about to be updated. In March, Breabach release their third album, Bann. It’s the first one to feature their new line-up, after two of the original four members left early last year, and with new blood in the band bringing fresh impetus, the question of where they’re likely to be playing is likely to bring a response of “everywhere possible”.
“We took quite a lot of time off in 2011 so that we could get the new line-up settled in and rehearsed,” says Robertson. “But if, as a band, we made a New Year resolution, it was to go for it. We’re still young, although the new guys make Calum and myself feel a wee bit like old-timers now, and none of us have family commitments. So we’re going to get out there and go to as many places as we can and play to as many people as we can.”
The story of Breabach goes back to 2003 when four friends, Robertson on guitar and vocals, fiddler and viola player Patsy Reid and pipers Calum MacCrimmon and Donal Brown got together for a tune at Brown’s student flat in Kent Road, Glasgow and found that there was a tangible chemistry when they played together. Their twin bagpipes attack gave them a readily identifiable sound – Brown’s step dancing gave them an extra visual quality – and as they took their music, with its leanings towards the Highland style, to venues and festivals on the folk and traditional music circuit, they gathered a following.
Two albums, 2007’s The Big Spree and The Desperate Battle of the Birds, released in early 2010, confirmed their status as significant players on the folk scene and last year saw them nominated as ‘Best Group’ at both the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and the Scots Trad Music Awards.
Living to the beat of a tour schedule isn’t for everyone, however, and as Brown’s young family began to demand more of his time, he was increasingly asking James Duncan Mackenzie to deputise for him. Then, in January last year, Reid experienced an epiphany while playing with Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain on the opening concert of Celtic Connections in Glasgow and decided to explore new horizons. There was no animosity – they’d started as friends and parted as such – and while Brown’s departure had a ready solution in Mackenzie, replacing Reid required some consideration from the other members, who by now also included double bassist James Lindsay.
“At first, when Patsy said she wanted to try something different, we thought, wow, where do we go from here?” says Robertson. “In Donal’s case, we’d already been working with James Mackenzie whenever Donal had to ask for time off, and he quickly and easily settled into the band as a full-time member. But with Patsy leaving, that meant a clean break and at first there was no obvious replacement. You can look at these situations negatively and get a bit down, I suppose, but we decided that it was an opportunity to bring in a new, exciting player and when we sat down to think about it, we realised that there was nobody other than Megan Henderson that we wanted to approach.”
One of a large family from Fort William who are prominent all over the traditional music scene – her brothers Allan and Ewen play with Blazin’ Fiddles and Battlefield band respectively and her sister Ingrid is clarsach instructor at the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School – Megan Henderson brings a strong background in Gaelic and West Highland music to Breabach. As well as fiddle, she plays piano, sings and step dances and her experience as accompanist to the current Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year, Orkney fiddler Kristan Harvey, and as a step-dancing, fiddling, puirt-a-beul-singing member of Salsa Celtica meant that Breabach were getting an accomplished musician with a big personality.
“She’s a great character to have around,” says Robertson, “and as well as being steeped in the West Highland tradition, she has so much enthusiasm. James Mackenzie is the same and while we’ve always had a lot fun as a band, over the past year we’ve really become a great bunch of pals and I think that comes through in the music when we play live and on the new album as well.”
Denoting this feeling of togetherness in its title, Bann (which translates from Gaelic as band or bind) came together over the spring and summer and was recorded in Glenfinnan, at the Old Laundry studio, which is owned by Megan Henderson’s sister, Ingrid and brother-in-law, Iain MacFarlane (another Blazin’ Fiddles and Plockton connection), in September.
“It was a really inspiring place to record,” says Robertson. “Glenfinnan itself has a great atmosphere around it. You can really feel the history of the place and the studio being there is brilliant because you can walk outside and almost instantly clear your head any time you feel things aren’t going quite the way you wanted them to. We’d written or arranged everything on the CD together because we wanted everyone to be involved from the word go and between the location and the fact that the MacDonald brothers, who are big piping influences on both Calum and James Mackenzie, are from nearby Glenuig, you really felt that you were creating something within a tradition.”
As well as introducing the two new members and being James Lindsay’s first appearance on a Breabach album, Bann also features Calum MacCrimmon for the first time as a singer and songwriter, singing in Western Skies of his upbringing in Alberta, Canada and subsequent experiences as a student in Glasgow while studying at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Away from Breabach the piper has recorded an album of his own songs in a more contemporary style, Man’s Ruin, and he has also recently collaborated on an album of improvised music with the New York-based saxophonist Joe Rigby.
For Robertson, whose own solo career, which was boosted by winning the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year competition in 2008, continues in parallel to Breabach, such extra-curricular activities actually strengthen the band.
“When we go away and do our own things, it doesn’t mean that Breabach’s missing out – it’s more a case of being stimulated and coming back with fresh ideas,” he says. “Calum and James Lindsay, who works in jazz in his time away from Breabach, are both particularly creative and are always coming up with things for us to try out as a band. We obviously have a whole new album to play on gigs at the moment but I think we’ll be adding more new ideas, bit by bit as we go along on the gigs we have coming up. It’s good to do it that way because it’s a more natural process rather than making a big sudden change.”
Upcoming gigs include a support slot in their Quebecois friends, Le Vent du Nord’s 10th anniversary concert at Celtic Connections tonight and their own headlining gig at the festival next Saturday (January 28). February and March see them touring throughout England and Scotland and beyond that there are return visits to the US and Australia, where last year they had a much coveted spot at the prestigious Port Fairy Folk Festival.
“It’s a long way to go for one gig,” says Robertson, who in between touring hijinks such as getting stranded in the Hebrides and serenading camels in the Jordanian desert still serves as part-time firefighter in his home town of Carrbridge. “We were there for four days and spent about three days either side getting there. Plus we managed to amass a collection of speeding tickets in the short time we were there. But it was fun and definitely worth it. And it’s great to be asked back. It’ll be a bit less hectic this time because we’re going for longer – a week.”
From The Herald, January 21, 2012.