The multiple award winning Skerryvore are on a roll around the globe, taking their Celtic-rock fusion to the world. Since their breakthrough album, Skerryvore, in 2011, the band have come increasingly to rely on their own creative output, a decision that has paid off handsomely. Their fifth album, Chasing The Sun, sets up the next leg of their journey, building on the cross-over appeal of its predecessor and taking their unique fusion to a whole new level, with a superb set of songs and tunes. It’s with good reason that Skerryvore have been tagged, “The hottest new Celtic rockers on the block.”
The relatively humble beginnings of Skerryvore first took root around the start of the new millennium, when Tiree brothers Daniel and Martin Gillespie got to know Fraser West and his friend Alec Dalglish. Daniel played accordion and Martin bagpipes and whistle, with the brothers already a fixture of their native Tiree music scene, both having benefitted from the tuition of local legend Gordon Connell. They regularly played ceilidhs, parties and occasional gigs at the island’s Scarinish Hotel. Fraser and Alec were regular visitors to the island and their friendship with the Gillespies formed over a shared love of music. Both the visitors had been part of the West Lothian School’s Wind and Big Bands, having started out on trumpet and euphonium respectively. But it was as a drummer that Fraser first sat in on the island sessions.
With Alec adding guitar, mandolin and vocals, the quartet coalesced and around 2004 adopted the name Skerryvore from the rocky outcrop and lighthouse to the south of the Gillespie’s Tiree home. Their debut album, West Coast Life, followed a year later and almost instantly attracted attention for the quality of the playing and skilful arrangements , mostly of traditional Scottish tunes. The record became a fixture on BBC Radio Scotland, with Mary Ann Kennedy in particular making it a feature of her Celtic Connections show.
Naturally enough the gig schedule filled on the back of the acclaim that Skerryvore enjoyed, but looking to expand their sound they first tried using guests, before adding Fiddler Craig Espie and bassist Barry Caulfield as permanent members. They then went one stage further recruiting a brass section for the follow up album, On The Road, released in 2007. The album still stuck primarily with traditional material, however, while attracting favourable comparisons with Runrig.
The real breakthrough came with their third self titled album released in 2010, which saw a change of attack, as they retained the core instrumental mix, but dropped the horn section. The resultant album, featuring mostly original, self-composed songs and tunes, instantly winning praise across the board, with Skerryvore lauded as, “The hottest new Celtic rockers on the block,” by John Dingwall of the Daily Record. The following year the album earned the band Scottish New Music Awards Album Of The Year, while Alec Dalglish was individually awarded as the Frankie Miller Songwriter Of The Year. They rounded up a momentous 2011 by scooping Best Live Act at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards in December.
On the back of this their international touring profile took off and Skerrvore have since played all over the world, indeed as this review is written, thy have just finished touring America and are scheduled to be in Europe, with Scottish and English dates also lined up through October and into November.
With the 2012 release of World Of Chances developing the band’s new formula, shifting even further from the traditional music roots and widely acclaimed as their most commercial record so far, Skerryvore’s fortunes continued on their upward trajectory. Chasing The Sun arrives, therefore, with high expectations and comes replete with 10 new Alec Dalglish songs plus one tune from him, a tune set from Martin Gillespie and another arranged around a composition by Irish concertina maestro Niall Vallely. There’s a new bassist too, with Jodie Bremaneson, replacing former Wolfstone man Colin Cunnigham, who had replaced Barry Caulfield in 2012. Producer Alan Scobie, who plays keyboards is also credited as a full band member increasing their line up to seven.
There’s an obvious confidence in Alec’s songs and also in the big bold sound of this record, which seems tailor made for the serious globe trotting, concert halls and festivals that are Skerryvore’s calling, doubtless sweeping all before them into a seething mass of excitement. It’s a pumped up sound and slashing guitars, a thunder of drums and pulsing bass, do much to emphasise the second half of their Celtic-rock tag. But there are still subtleties in the instrumentation and intricate highlights that play up that wistful Celtic air and connect them to an ageless musical legacy.
There are also some changes of pace, notably You Were My Friend, which slows things down and sounds ripe for a Nashville make over, or at least a cover version or two. Among Alec’s melodies, several songs lean that way, but then the feedback loop of Scottish and Irish folk music and American country music is well established and the circling exchange is still happening. None the less the band’s website lists Alec’s favourite bands, which include the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Patsy Cline and Fleetwood Mac amongst others. Somewhere betwixt and between those touchstones these melodies are born.
Lyrically it’s interesting to look at this album in the context of the current referendum. Of course, it’s quite possible these songs were written ages ago and it’s very risky to read too much into them, or put words into the singer’s mouth. Can You Hear Us, however, starts with, “Come together one and all, stand together, stand tall, try to find the strength that lies deep within your heart.” It’s a positive rallying call that could easily be adopted by either side. We Can Run is equally upbeat in its message, suggesting opportunity and possibility, while You Don’t Know is laden with choice.
Perhaps they are simply about personal goals, life in Skerryvore, or something else entirely, yet whether by accident or design, they seem very apposite for the current climate. Every which way, however, they are cracking good songs and you may divine a completely different meaning, but then that’s the joy of music. Perhaps it’s the sense of conviction with which they are sung that seems to play up their significance. They have that weight, but then that’s just the way Skerryvore roll and a corollary of their burgeoning global success.
There is some great playing throughout and with four tunes, there’s plenty of opportunity for the band to show their skills. It’s a near perfect blend of the anthemic, the inventive and in places the downright funky. The first, The Rut, has the skirl of Martin’s pipes, with the melody, also picked out by the accordion, cutting through an atmospheric intro. The track develops with searing lead guitar and an impressive gear change. Oblique Blend meanwhile, makes use of the Niall Vallely tune The Oblique, also adding a funky guitar intro. Moonraker again starts with a guitar riff, before Alec’s mandolin and wonderfully dexterous bassline from Jodie, locked into Fraser’s inventive drum patterns, lead out Craig’s fiddle and Daniel’s accordion on a merry, swirling tune. The breakdown is all rolling sea misty suggestion, with Martin’s whistles and some tasty keyboard fills from Alan. The Watchtower provides another of the album’s more chilled out moments, but builds graceful layers from acoustic guitar and whistles, adding some impressively subsonic rumbles and expressive tom-tom fills before the epic climax.
There are other places where the instrumentation shines in support of the songs, like the intro to By Your Side and also Walk With Me. In Here I Am, they perhaps have something of that Proclaimers catchiness and a sing along quality that will doubtless be used to full effect live. Blown Away by contrast has a yearning realisation that home is where the heart is, even if it’s a little, “Rough around the edges carved with a pocket knife.” Whether Alec will be seeing much of that home, given the current demands on the band, is moot and perhaps adds an extra emotional tug.
All in all, it’s a question of balance and in that Chasing The Sun is very finely judged at that. The album is epic yet intimate, digging into the traditions but with a bold new vision and ultimately realising the strengths of a great set of songs and tunes sung and played with style and sophistication. They may have drifted from their ceilidh roots, but in trusting their own instincts, Skerryvore have crafted a world beating fusion, which takes pride in their heritage and above all else is a pure joy to listen to. With continent hopping tours in progress, you can bet there ain’t no stopping them now they’ve got the groove!
Review by: Simon Holland
Skerryvore – The Rut