Four natives of the Hebridean Islands of Tiree and South Uist have been steadily building a Glasgow-based following for their unique and refreshing take on the ceilidh music that has kept dance floors on the west coast of Scotland, and far beyond, lively for decades. On 18th July, Trail West released their second album, Rescattermastered. That title will take a little explanation, and the music may too.
All too often when we discuss folk music in Scotland, the subject of ceilidh and Scottish Country Dance music is seen as something apart, if it’s seen at all. Luckily, there are, in fact, a huge number of young musicians who keep this vital art form alive. Some are making great waves with their interpretations of musical forms that have become traditional on the west coast and the islands, and Trail West are confidently forming a vanguard for that movement.
The effervescent opening tune set, for instance, that gives the album its enigmatic title. It’s a direct progression from the opening of their début album (The One That Got Away), The Scattermaster. In Rescattermastered we’re introduced to an accordion and whistle pairing that, in many ways, is an exciting and refreshing sound in itself, especially in this context. Then we find the Gaelic tradition of Donald Black set amiably alongside Damien O’Kane’s Castlerock Reel; and in a setting where guitar meets percussion to provide a rhythm so tight and precise, that only the strict beats of the dance floor could have produced it.
The accordion and whistle that share the melody belong to, respectively, Ian Smith from Tiree and Seonaidh MacIntyre from South Uist. It’s a partnership that sits at the forefront of the band; and the accordion/whistle duet is a recurring theme; but, as we’ll see, it isn’t the only partnership Trail West have to offer. As for those rhythms, they also hail from Tiree, in the shape of Andrew Findlater‘s percussion and Alain Campbell‘s guitar.
Following their 2013 debut Trail West were crowned Scottish Dance Band of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards. The album was an energetic collection of dance floor tune sets, peppered with traditional Gaelic song; but there was something about the energy, skill and spirit of the album that set it apart. Rescattermastered takes things quite a few steps further, and rather than take the same approach of bringing the essence of the traditional ceilidh to the studio, they’ve been able to create a fresh, contemporary, studio-based sound for the music while holding fast to the essential elements of that tradition.
Not only that – they’ve ventured well beyond the dance floor, with style, and in song.
In John Henry, Seonaidh’s vocal expertly references Bruce Springsteen’s version, along with Ewen Henderson‘s fiddle (Mànran) and a country twang from the guitar of Skerryvore’s Alec Dalglish to add to the excitement.
Closer to home, MacPherson’s Rant is one of the best known songs in the Scottish canon, and Trail West hark back to The Old Blind Dogs’ much loved version, in terms of pace. The clear, stirring vocal is as compelling as the tension provided by a military snare among the folk-rock drums and, again, accordion and whistle make a grand duet of the melody.
It’s hardly surprising they make such a fine pair. The powerful Hebridean roots of Seonaidh MacIntyre’s music is backed up by musical training at Benbecula College and Strathclyde University, and Ian started learning the accordion at the age of 5 on an island that, with a population of around 700, turns out an inordinate number of fine accordionists, as the music of Skipinnish, Skerryvore and Gunna Sound testifies.
Eilean Uibhist mo Rùin (My beloved island of Uist) is the first of three Gaelic songs to grace the album. With a vocal that opens in almost a whisper, it’s a far more subtle approach than we’re used to hearing in male Gaelic vocals. The song gently builds among layers of whistle and vocal harmonies that feature not only the four band members but the unmistakable voice of Kathleen MacInnes. To crown the album’s Gaelic contributions, Kathleen provides the lead vocal for Mharaiche nan Cuantan (Sailor of the Seas). Composed by Floraidh NicPhail from Tiree, the song features Kathleen’s vocal in duet with whistle and guitar, while the lovely bass tones of guests Angus MacPhail and Robert Robertson provide the perfect vocal partnership. When a four song medley in celebration of Seonaidh’s birthday ended up too good to leave off the album, Sing-Along Gàidhlig Waltzes was the result. I just wish I had the knowledge to pick out even a few of the individual voices!
There’s ample space for English language songs, though. South Australia is a well known shanty that employs a fine vocal chorus and great big bass drum, with Ewen Henderson‘s fiddle adding soaring harmonies toward the end. The band describes Homes Of Donegal as a thank you to all the people who’ve welcomed them on the road. And it’s a sincere, heartfelt, joyful thank you.
The dance floor is still Trail West’s home territory, though, and it’s well represented on the album. Iain Lamont’s is a set featuring that hugely effective accordion/whistle duet and a blistering close that’s given added vitality when the highland pipes take over the melody. Just as fast-paced is On The Tear! and Highland Schottische is one of the lads’ favourite dance sets, closing with the song Ho Ro Tha Mi Smaointinn, and a huge smile. Having enjoyed the occasional taste of Seonaidh’s pipes throughout the album, in Here We Go A? we can finally enjoy them in all their glory.
To close the album Malcolm Jones (Runrig) joins the lads for his own uplifting tune with a distinctly Gaelic folk rock edge, Close to Home. That edge is made all the more keen by his electric guitar and the song’s given an extended outing that allows plenty of room for ‘Wee’ Ewen Henderson‘s pipes, a spine-tingling choral chant and more of Andrew Findlater’s flawless drums.
There are very few bands who can claim to function so well as both a studio and a ceilidh band. For a band to achieve this in so convincing a manner, on their second album, is quite remarkable and is also testament to the contribution from producer/bass/keyboard player Ross Wilson.
The ceilidh music of Scotland’s west coast remains as popular as ever in its home territory and all over Scotland, and has provided a nurturing influence for some of its finest musicians, who’ve gone on to take the music in new and exciting directions. From Shooglenifty to Skerryvore, those traditions have fostered a wide range of wonderful new music. Trail West, however, achieve something with Rescattermastered that isn’t innovative in the same way. They’ve progressed for taking their live performances to the studio, to developing a studio album that can translate to the live stage. That’s no mean feat for four island lads who grew up as a ceilidh band, learning how to perform live and get people on the dance floor. I don’t think any other band has achieved such a convincing and honest adaptation of ceilidh music. Their versatility shines through in the studio, but their hearts are on the dance floor – and it feels like their natural home.
Rescattermastered is Out Now via Tyree Records
29th | Eilean Dorcha Festival: Benbecula
4th | MacGochans, Tobermory
5th | Bunessan Show Dance: Bunessan Hall
6th | Jura Regatta: Village Hall, Jura
7th | The Lorne, Oban
11th | Islay Show Dance: Bowmore Hall, Islay
12th | Private Function: Wedding – Stornoway Town Hall, Lewis
13th | Private Function: Wedding – Òran Mòr, Glasgow
19th | McCaig’s Return, Oban
20th | Coll Half-Marathon Dance: An Cridhe, Coll
21st | Lean To, Tiree
26th – 27th | Cowal Highland Gathering, Dunoon
2nd | Blas Festival: Glengarry Community Hall
3rd | Blas Festival: Strathy Village Hall
4th | Park Bar, Glasgow
16th | Islay Inn, Glasgow
17th | Private Function: Isle of Mull
23rd | Park Bar, Glasgow
24th | Private Function: Isle of Mull
29th | Private Function: Isle of Harris
30th | Private Function: Wedding – Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow
7th | Private Function: Wedding – Skipinnish Ceilidh House, Oban
8th | Markie Dans, Oban
14th | MacGochans, Tobermory
16th | Tobermory Hotel, Tobermory
Royal National Mod
19th – 21st | Crown Hotel, Stornoway
22nd | Park Bar, Glasgow
28th | Lochaber Mod Fundraiser: Caol Community Centre
29th | Gin Hut, Inverness
30th | Islay Inn, Glasgow
5th | The Glen, Oban
18th | Tiree Association Annual Gathering Dance, Glasgow
19th | Private Function: Wedding- Mar Lodge, Braemar
20th | Park Bar, Glasgow
26th | Park Bar, Glasgow
2nd | Islay Inn, Glasgow
3rd | Gin Hut, Inverness
10th | Private Function: Kirknewton Stables
16th | Park Bar, Glasgow
29th | The Lorne, Oban
31st | Broadford Village Hall, Skye
More details here: trail-west.co.uk