For 15 years now, Dàimh have steadily built an enviable reputation as a band resolutely remaining true to the roots of their, sometimes adopted, homes in the Western Highlands and Islands. They’ve nonetheless been adept at presenting fresh and rewarding facets of the Gaelic culture of the region. So, when I reviewed their previous release, Tuneship, I described it as “…a fine collection of modern Celtic music”, all but one of the tunes and songs being band member compositions. In contrast, the pieces on this latest album, with just two exceptions, are traditional. So, what’s the story behind this change? Well, it certainly isn’t that their collective music writing muse has dried up, the thoughtful, engaging arrangements they’ve given these trad pieces are testament to the abundant creativity possessed by the band. Rather, in the words of the band’s piper, Angus MacKenzie, “We wanted to record an album of the traditional tunes we have been playing for years at wild dances and ceilidhs across the West Coast and islands” Where better to record it than the islands where some of those ceilidhs had been held?
And so the idea behind The Hebridean Sessions was born. A number of the Western Isles host recording studios, but simply using any one of these wasn’t going to satisfy their desire to capture the energy and atmosphere of their gigs. So the band set themselves the far more demanding task of taking the recording studio with them, to capture three gigs on three different islands, Mull, Skye and South Uist, all in the space of a week.
This was decidedly a trip back in time for the three long standing members of Dàimh, Angus MacKenzie (pipes and whistles), Gabe McVarish (fiddle) and Ross Martin (guitar), revisiting both locations and the music. But the band has been though another period of personnel changes since the last album and so for new members Murdo Cameron (mandola and accordion) and Ellen MacDonald (vocals) it was also a chance to catch up with some of the band’s past whilst bringing in their new material and putting new slants on the old.
Ellen, in particular, has brought a dramatically different element to Dàimh’s music. Sure, vocal material has been part of their repertoire before, but a female voice is a departure and when that voice has been described as “the most exciting thing to happen to Gaelic song since the invention of the Ceilidh” it’s as well to sit up and take notice. With a top class female vocalist performing a slow, lyrical Gaelic song it’s tempting to liken the clarity and purity of the voice to fine crystal glass, in Ellen’s case the glass carries a dram of something smoky, maybe Lagavulin. Five of the ten tracks on the album feature Ellen’s voice, ranging from the emotional Gur e mo ghille dubh dhonn to the sprightly puirt a beul of Cuir a Nall. The first of these songs builds from a quiet, slow opening with voice and guitar, adding accordion and whistle as it builds in volume. After a quiet middle section, the song builds again, the melody eventually being taken over by Angus’s pipes before the voice returns, unaccompanied, for the final stanza. Throughout, Ellen’s voice blends perfectly with the developing accompaniment, a song to raise the hairs on the back of the neck, beautiful. With puirt a beul, the voice effectively becomes another instrument, the rhythm more important than the lyrics and here the matching of Ellen’s voice with mandola, fiddle, whistle and eventually pipes works so well. This latest Dàimh line up has found a winning combination.
Dàimh have chosen not to include the lyrics of the songs with the album, either in Gaelic or English. But to help out us poor benighted souls whose Gaelic isn’t up to the job, they’ve helpfully adapted the emoji system to indicate song content. As an example, Oran a Tombaca, a song originally from Newfoundland and concerning the price of tobacco is illustrated by three images of smoking pipes. I particularly like the images for O fair a-nall am botal, a snowflake, two upside down cows and three bottles, seems to perfectly capture the essence of a song to sing as you take to drink, lamenting the loss of your cows during a hard winter.
The instrumental tracks are as lively, imaginative and polished as we’ve come to expect from Dàimh and new member Murdo Cameron, with both mandola and accordion, makes a great addition to the palette of instruments. Angus plays border pipes, giving a sound that blends well with the stringed instruments and, perhaps, was felt to be more in keeping with the small venues used for the recording. Each instrumental is generally a set of three or four tunes and, as you’d expect given that the band originally played them at ceilidhs, they build in both pace and volume. Music to get you up and dancing and set you back down exhausted.
Even though Dàimh have described the material chosen for this album as tunes they’ve been playing for years, that’s belied by the freshness and vitality of the way they’ve approached them. I’ve worked a lot in the parts of Scotland Dàimh call home and been to a ceilidh or two there, but if they’d sounded as good as this I might never have left.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
The Hebridean Sessions is out now via Goat Island Music
Click here to Order it via the Dàimh website