As one of the organising team whispered, only partly tongue in cheek, ‘they said we were mad to put on an outdoor event in Oban this early in the year’. It needed to be said with a smile on the lips as, at the time, we were watching a crowd of several thousand, bathed in glorious sunshine, bouncing up and down to a rip roaring set from Wolfstone. A band that, for nearing 30 years, has been combining the best of Scottish tradition with the energy of the best live rock performances. And that’s a combination aptly describing the music presented at Oban Live over two hugely enjoyable days and nights. Music that ranged from the crystal pure Gaelic vocals of Julie Fowlis, through the pop-infused songs of KT Tunstall to the driving Celtic rock of Skerryvore.
Oban Live kicked off in style with James Edwyn and The Borrowed Band who won their place on the bill with an impressive performance in the finals of the CalMac Culture Music competition. This six-piece band handled their step into the limelight with style, their well-crafted, melodic alt country songs, all written by James, finding an eager and enthusiastic audience. Their debut album, The Tower, was released on CD last year and they’re currently working on a follow up. Their reward for success in the competition continues with appearances at a number of other festivals, including HebCelt and Tiree in Scotland. I’m looking forward to catching up with them soon at Gate to Southwell.
In the first of many “…and now for something completely different” moments, what followed was a very special appearance from Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. To be sure, any gig by these two masters of traditional Scottish music can lay claim to being special but this one was just two days before Aly’s 70th birthday and the birthday spirit suffused the gig from start to finish. Talking with him beforehand, it was clear he viewed the birthday as a significant, and not entirely pleasant, milestone but, I’m pleased to say, not one that would prompt a noticeable cut-back in his music making. Our conversation soon moved on to future plans and Aly needed little prompting to talk about Transatlantic Sessions, confirming a new series is being actively pursued. The core musicians are on board and there is renewed enthusiasm from US broadcasters with new people involved at PBS. There is hope that a commitment from the BBC will be agreed before long. Aly himself is as supportive of the concept as ever, proud of the success it has had. Not just in its primary aim of bringing Scots, Irish and North American musicians together but in the rôle it has taken in providing opportunities for young musicians from this side of the Atlantic to work collaboratively with established North American stars. He cites James Taylor and Emmylou Harris, artists attracted to the project not by a mega-fee but by the prospect of exploring the roots of their own music.
Our conversation was cut short by the five-minute call to be on stage. As we walk over, joined by Phil Cunningham, I listen in as they swap tune titles, deciding if they are to be in the set or not. As they go on stage, Phil turns to me, “you’ve just seen the most rehearsal we ever get”. Any musings as to how true that may be are rapidly forgotten as the tunes begin to flow, two musicians who, after 30 years of working together, immediately blend their instruments to first beguile and then energise their audience. Let the dancing begin. Phil has long had the reputation of being the chatty one on stage and, with the birthday looming, tonight he has an abundance of material to work with. Not that Aly lets him get away unscathed, there’s plenty of gentle ribbing on both sides. They’re both momentarily speechless, though, when as they’re introducing their last tunes, a mammoth birthday cake in the shape of Aly’s fiddle, marzipan figures of the two of them alongside, is carried on stage. A fitting finale, but they have the last word with a rousing, closing set of tunes.
With a good part of the crowd already in dancing mood the remaining three bands were perfect for building the evening to a stirring crescendo. Wolfstone were first up with Duncan Chisholm in the more raucous of his musical modes, he’d reappear a changed man on Saturday alongside Julie Fowlis. A Wolfstone gig is getting to be something of a rare treat, their web pages don’t currently list any other UK gigs, though they’ll be active in Denmark in August and September. The band has a rock solid rhythm section with Alyn Cosker on drums and Colin Cunningham on bass. The long standing frontline men, Duncan on fiddle, Steve Saint on pipes and whistles and Stuart Eaglesham on vocals and acoustic guitar currently joined by relative newcomer (2010), Davie Dunsmuir on electric guitar. Twice during the set, musicians from other bands came up to me singing Davie’s praises, “the best guitarist currently playing in Scotland” according to one. I’ve no reason to disagree, his guitar sometimes blending into the mix, sometimes adding impressive lead breaks but always sounding totally at home in amongst the fiddle and pipes.
Last year’s Tiree Music Festival had introduced many of the Oban audience to Irish quartet We Banjo 3 (yes 4 into 3 does go) and so a loud, lively and enthusiastic welcome awaited them. That’s a pretty appropriate description for their music as well, the set kicked off apace and didn’t let up, showcasing their characteristic combination of traditional Irish tunes and bluegrass compositions Eventually, they were joined on stage by Skerryvore, raising an already rapturous audience to an ever higher level of enthusiasm. Having squeezed a number of UK festivals into a busy programme last summer, their focus is currently elsewhere with a tour of Ireland, a couple of European dates and then a six date US tour under the Culture Ireland banner. Mainland UK will have to wait until October before we get another chance to experience the high energy delight that is We Banjo 3.
Following such a barnstorming set is never easy but Oban-based Skipinnish were just the band to take it on. Formed in 1999 by Angus MacPhail (accordion and vocals) and Andrew Stevenson (pipes, whistles and fiddle), they started life as a 4/5-piece ceilidh band playing Highland and Island village halls. More recently they’ve grown, both musically and in number, though fortunately the growth spurt hasn’t affected Angus, he’s always been a towering presence of a man. Earlier this year, two long standing members, Robert Robertson and Ross Wilson left the band and so the line-up taking to the Oban stage had several new faces. Angus, Andrew and Alasdair Murray have been joined on lead vocals and guitar by Norrie MacIver, recently parted from Manran, and Jonathan Gillespie on keyboards. Rory Grindlay is now behind the drum kit, freeing up Alasdair to play pipes and whistles alongside Andrew and regular guest piper, Kyle Orr. Another regular guest member, Archie McAllister, was on fiddle and a temporary bass player completed a line-up of nine. With the combinations available from three pipers, each of whom could switch to whistle, plus accordion and fiddle there was plenty of variety to the frenetic tune sets. But the centre stage presence of Norrie MacIver added a second route to audience participation, his choice of traditional and contemporary songs guaranteeing that, when taking a breather from dancing, the crowd was singing choruses at full volume. A shiny, new Skipinnish, the perfect band to finish off an evening that steadily grew in pace and volume but showed the highest quality from first to last.
The crowds making their way out of the stadium, laughing and singing, headed the short distance down into the centre of Oban. Many of the hotels and bars chose to be part of Oban Live by putting on daytime fringe music events that continued on into the night. The official Oban Live After Party, though, didn’t start until 11 and continued through to 4am. And where was it held? The Skipinnish Ceilidh House, of course, the music venue that Angus and Andrew operate as the day job. When the West of Scotland decides to enjoy itself, don’t expect there to be much time reserved for sleeping.
Saturday, another bright, clear day and there just had to be a boat trip to view a small part of the local seal population. Then back up to the stadium for day 2 of Oban Live, kicking off with Capercaillie. Given the world-wide career the band has had for 30+ years, it’s easy to overlook that it started life in Oban when Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw, two founding members, were still pupils at the local High School. They certainly hadn’t forgotten and looked upon Oban Live very much as a homecoming gig, eager to share the memories that playing the gig in the local sports stadium evoked. For Donald it was playing shinty here, and suffering the bruises that inevitably followed, for Karen the sport had less attraction than the possibility of a quick cigarette away from prying eyes. As soon as the Capercaillie set started, there was quick reassurance that sneaky smoking in the past hadn’t done anything to diminish the beauty of Karen’s voice. We were treated to a mix of songs in Gaelic and English backed by superb musicianship from the lead instruments of Michael McGoldrick and Charlie McKerron. A hallmark of Capercaillie over the years has been the sure touch that they’ve brought to combining traditional music with modern instruments and arrangements. Reinforcing this, at points in the set, I could only describe the sound as Gaelic funk with Donald leaving his accordion for the keyboard and Manus Lunny’s bouzouki bearing a striking resemblance to Shaft style guitar.
A homecoming isn’t complete without meeting up with old friends, so fiddle duets from Charlie McKerron and Oban High School Old Boy Aidan O’Rourke added spice to the set and, whilst Angus MacColl was unfortunately otherwise engaged, his son, Angus MacColl Jnr, was there to represent the local piping dynasty. The final guest may not have been an Oban local but was every bit as welcome, Julie Fowlis joining Karen on vocals.
Julie would return shortly with her own band but first, Hunter and the Bear took over. EPs they released in 2013 and 14 were featured on Folk Radio with tracks that invited comparison with bands such as Ahab. After the release of their first EP they moved from Scotland to London and later expanded from a trio to a quartet. The fruits of those changes were very much in evidence in Oban. With lead singer and guitarist Will having swapped his acoustic for a Telecaster, their sound now has a much harder, rockier edge, the songs generally faster paced. They’re about to start recording the newer material for their debut full album.
With Julie Fowlis back on stage a softer, more traditional air was restored. Flanked by husband Éamon Doorley on bouzouki guitar and Duncan Chisholm, in his non-Wolfstone persona, on fiddle, Julie occasionally added whistle to the arrangements. But, of course, it’s her voice that holds centre stage and we were treated to almost an hour of exquisite singing, most often in Gaelic but Julie, as ever, had the knack of mixing songs with just enough background chat to intrigue, educate and above all entertain.
The roller coaster ride of genre swapping continued with Skerryvore’s set. As appreciative as the crowd had been of Julie’s traditional song craft, it was Saturday night and there was a party to be had. Skerryvore’s brand of Celtic folk rock was the perfect soundrack for it, giving everyone the chance to make some noise and expend yet more energy. Their chosen material sampled from all the band’s output, crowd pleasers from beginning to end. The band also took the opportunity to invite a couple of guests. Blair Douglas is the sort of man to attract the label, “a musician’s musician”, an accordion player and composer from Skye, in the 1970s he was one of the founding members of Runrig but soon moved on to pursue a largely solo musical career. His compositions have led him to be called a musical genius and it was with obvious delight that Skerryvore’s accordionist, Daniel Gillespie, welcomed him on stage for a duet. The second guest, J J Gilmour, is former lead vocalist with Scotland’s hugely successful 90s band, The Silencers. He joined Skerryvore vocalist, Alec Dalglish in one of their most anthemic songs, Patsy Cavanagh’s Home to Donegal. True to form, the crowd found its voice and took over the choruses, it was turning into that sort of night and set the tone for the rest of the set. To describe the audience reaction as ecstatic is an understatement.
Skerryvore certainly got them in the mood to enjoy the final act of the weekend, KT Tunstall. As a singer/songwriter KT has earned wide respect for both her lyrics and melodies whilst her abundant chart success has honed a stage style that dramatically set her apart from the bands that had played before. With silver trousers and her band set up on individual patterned risers, she made a striking visual impression but it was her songs that confirmed her “top of the bill” status. Many of them were brand new, destined to appear on her next album and receiving their first UK performance at Oban. With KT moving her base from Scotland to Los Angeles in 2014 it was clear much of the audience was relishing an opportunity to see her live again. She delivered a performance that was a fitting climax to an event packed with astounding music.
Given the voracious appetite for Scottish music, both traditional and contemporary, the people of the West Highlands have long exhibited, it’s no surprise the first Oban Live event was such a success. The Team are currently collecting feedback from both audience and the town before committing to a repeat event next year. Here’s mine – the amount and quality of the music made the trip up from the south coast totally worthwhile. And that’s the south coast as in Hampshire, not Dumfries and Galloway.