Dàimh are content to let themselves be described as a Gaelic supergroup. But don’t let this conjure up an image of a Celtic music version of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, musicians who, having established careers independently, come together, often transiently, in a blaze of publicity. In contrast, Dàimh have, since releasing their first album in 2000, diligently developed their music with a line up that expanded in 2007 with the addition of vocalist and piper Calum Alex MacMillan but which otherwise stayed constant up until the last couple of years. For this album, long time members Colm O’Rua and James Bremner as well as comparative newcomer Calum Alex have departed and the remaining original members, Angus MacKenzie (Highland pipes and whistles), Gabe McVarish (Fiddles) and Ross Martin (Guitar) are joined by Damian Helliwell (Mandolin and banjo) and Griogair Labhruidh (Vocals and Uilleann pipes).
The band members live in some of the most remote and stunningly beautiful parts of Western Scotland, the islands of Skye and Eigg, Western Lochaber and North Argyll. The strong sense of tradition in these places alongside the Gaelic language and culture infuse Dàimh’s music but the band also draws on much wider Celtic influences. Gabe McVarnish returned to Scotland at the age of 17 having been born into a Scottish émigré family in Northern California whilst Angus MacKenzie hails from a Gaelic speaking family in Cape Breton, Canada. The geographic and cultural breadth of this personal experience ensures Dàimh’s music has a freshness and variety that gives them a clear identity among the current plethora of excellent Celtic bands. The 7 instrumental sets and 3 songs on Tuneship vividly illustrate the range and power the band can generate with the new line up.
All but one of the tunes are band member’s compositions with Angus, Gabe and Damian being the most prolific. The 3 tunes in the opening set reference the island of Raasay that nestles off the east side of Skye, very much part of “Dàimh country”. The music, penned by Angus and Gabe, gets the album off to a rousing pipe-led start. Throughout the album there are these upbeat pieces guaranteed to get the feet stomping, often with the Highland pipes and fiddle competing for the melody. Much of Dàimh’s attraction, though, stems from interspersing the rampaging tunes with slow lyrical pieces that have the capacity to take your breath away. For anyone who has travelled around “Dàimh country”, a tune such as Barra to Balloch, featuring whistle, fiddle and Uillean pipes is likely to transport you back to memories of sunsets over rugged coastlines or Highland cattle peacefully grazing the turf. Tunes from Damian tend, understandably, to feature the banjo rather more prominently and awake memories of some of the finest Irish bands of recent years; reinforcing Dàimh’s aim to encompass the best of Celtic music without regard to geographical boundaries.
The final strand of Dàimh’s output, Gaelic song, is now handled by Griogair Labhruidh. The songs he’s chosen each represent a very common element of Gaelic song, both traditional and more recent compositions. Song and poetry were the communal memory long before the written word and Siud Agaibh An Deoch A Dh’ Olainn is a song naming and praising many ancient families from “Dàimh country”. Like so many ancient songs it was preserved by singers from the Outer Isles, in this case Rauraidh E’n Bhàin of Barra, where the heavy hand of the governing classes was less able to crush tradition. Songs in praise of place, homeland songs, were particularly treasured by Celts who had been forced to leave those homelands and Mo Ghleanannan Taobh Loch Liobhann is one such, written by an early 20th Century poet, Sandy Rankin, from Griogair’s home village, Ballachulish, on the shores of Loch Liobhann. The final song, Hiu Ra Bho Nuair A Chaidh Mi A Ghlaschu, deals with far lighter matters, telling of an excursion to the fleshpots of Glasgow from villages north of Fort William that ends in predictable excess.
Tuneship is as fine a collection of modern Celtic music as I’ve encountered in a long time, more consciously rooted in the tradition than some, but still benefitting from the freedom of expression that is such a hallmark of today’s blossoming Scottish music scene.
Review by: Johnny Whalley