A trip out to the island of Tiree is always a joy to contemplate. But when the visit gives you the chance to catch performances from the likes of Flook, Sharon Shannon, Breabach, Blazin’ Fiddles, The Levellers and The Red Hot Chilli Pipers along with a host of new bands, it’s irresistible.
Quite a lot has changed since Folk Radio UK first visited Tiree Music Festival in 2013 but the friendly welcoming vibe from both the Festival and the wider Tiree community was still there in abundance. No wonder they’ve consistently been winning awards over the last couple of years. It remains a small festival, 2000 capacity, but on an island with a year-round population of little over 600 and a four-hour ferry journey from the mainland, the logistical challenges are formidable. None of that has stood in the way of an expansion from a single stage to three. This year we had The Big Top, a smaller marquee housing the Calmac Live Lounge and an Open Air Stage supported by the festival’s main sponsor, Cairn Capital. But, with a shoreline site exposed to whatever weather comes in from the Atlantic, it’s always as well to have a backup plan.
After a Thursday night and Friday morning of continuous rain and wind that backup plan was in operation even before the first artists performed, with acts scheduled for the Open Air Stage merged into the Big Top programme. For the first of several times over the weekend, the stage and sound crews showed just how committed they were to present the best possible festival and how well thought through the backup plan had been.
Amongst the first to perform in the Live Lounge were two young Scottish bands, Heron Valley and The Dirty Beggars. The effect they both had on the crowd packed into the marquee was electric, a case of having one tap to turn off the rain and a second that turned on the party; jumping, dancing, singing along all happened from the off, inside that tent it was instant sunshine. Both bands also played sets later on that weekend, and they were sessions I made sure not to miss.
Heron Valley are a five-piece with members coming from various parts of Argyll and currently gathered in and around Glasgow. Between them, they play fiddle, accordion (Alex Mackechnie), pipes, whistles, guitar (Euan MacNab), piano (Arlene Mackechnie), drums (Nick Hamilton) and guitar and vocals (Abigail Pryde). They play in a style that is recognisably derived from classic West Coast cèilidh bands of the last few years but adding their own variations of instrumentation and vocals. They’re studying or have just finished, at various Glasgow universities and colleges. In spite of that, they’re currently playing a full programme of gigs and festivals and, according to Alex, their long term aim would be to build a career with the band. Judging from the reception they were given by the Tiree audience, that is far from being a pipe dream. Their mix of traditional and self-penned songs and tunes was received even more enthusiastically by a much larger Big Top audience later in the weekend. I was particularly impressed by the structure of their set, building up the energy incrementally in a series of waves, taking the audience along with them every step of the way. The majority of their appearances this summer are in Scotland but, for those of you stuck further south, watch out for them at Towersey Festival or check out their just released single and video, Pressed for Time, available on iTunes.
The Dirty Beggars came to Tiree as a quartet but when we talked they were quick to explain they are currently missing two of their regular members. Mandolin player Finn Begbie and bassist Stuart Printie have been in Australia since the middle of last year and while the band currently gigs with a replacement bass player it still leaves them one man light. With a line-up of fiddle, banjo, guitar and upright bass, even without the mandolin, it’s little surprise that Bluegrass is the main source of their inspiration, but this is Bluegrass with a decided Scottish twist, think maybe Old Crow Medicine Show with a Glasgow accent. Principal writers are guitarist Kieran Begbie and fiddler Pedro Cameron, but the music that emerges is very much a product of the entire band. These two, along with Pete Begbie on banjo (the 3 Begbies are cousins) and Amitai Ladin on bass made an immediate impact by sitting themselves in the corner of the artists’ bar on Friday afternoon and playing for a couple of hours. They were then on stage for their first set, carrying on after Heron Valley in the Live Lounge. The sound and genre may have been fairly different, but the reaction of the crowd was just about identical, party on! The two missing members are expected back in January, and the intention is to immediately record material written before they left. Hopefully, we can expect a new album later in 2017.
A somewhat different take on Americana came from Perth band The New Madrids. They’ve been around for a few years with a 2014 album, Through The Heart of Town, already under their belt. With drums, bass guitar and electric guitars including pedal and lap steel, they produce a far heavier sound, at times straying across into mainstream Country, at times into Country rock but always keeping the audience on their feet and, most importantly, happy.
Macanta also don’t qualify as a “new young” band in quite the same way, not in terms of their ages or even the length of time, 3 to 4 years, that the band has been playing together. Their various other activities have meant that while they’ve written and performed plenty of material they’ve not yet recorded an album. So, if you haven’t caught one of their occasional gigs, their music will certainly be new to you. That may well change over the next few months, and I recommend you keep a lookout for tracks and videos appearing first on social media. Singer, guitarist and songwriter Dòl Eoin, equally at home in English and Gaelic, composes highly listenable songs, some breaking new ground as Gaelic Americana, whoever would have thought that Peggy Sue had roots in the Hebrides? Alongside the lyrics, Terry Balfour on tenor mandolin, not commonly heard as a lead instrument, adds accompaniment that also makes you sit up and take notice. A band to watch out for.
For the third festival in a row, I met up with James Edwyn and the Borrowed Band and it was great to see that, yet again, they found a lot of audience love coming their way. After winning the CalMac Culture Music finals, it has been a dream year, and they can look forward to lots more of the same with their blend of strong songs, harmonies and arrangements.
In amongst all these bands, there was a handful of solo artists and one I made sure to catch was Findlay Napier. A guy whose songs I’d found by the roundabout process of meeting Boo Hewardine, liking Boo’s songs, finding out he sometimes wrote with Findlay, subscribing to Findlay’s occasional newsletter and being intrigued by the quirky view of the world that drove it. I wasn’t disappointed, after listening to his songs, interspersed with highly entertaining chat, talking with him was a real pleasure. First I heard how much he’d learned from taking part in Viv Gee’s comedy course. He highly recommends going on stage to present a stand-up routine, after that, singing songs is a doddle. But more seriously, what it taught him about timing and audience interaction he says was invaluable. September sees the first Glasgow Songwriting Festival; he’d often felt the city should have one, and so now he’s created one. With his own songs, he has material for an album that should be ready for Celtic Connections in January, with a full release later in 2017.
It’s evident from the bands mentioned so far that Americana in its many guises is going down well with Scottish audiences. But they’re not neglecting more locally rooted material, and a band with strong Tiree connections helped to drive home the point. On our 2013 visit, the members of Dùn Mòr were still in High School but were beginning to make a name for themselves as a cèilidh band. They’ve stayed true to that aim, gigging regularly over a large area of western Scotland and their two sets at TMF highlighted their audience appeal to both young and old. In contrast to the youngsters in Dùn Mòr, Fergie MacDonald has been playing accordion based dance music since the 1950s. He’s widely credited with establishing cèilidh music as a style distinct from Scottish country dance and his Big Top appearance with his band attracted a packed crowd, many finding room to organise themselves into dance sets. Being joined on stage for a tune by his old friend and sparring partner Phil Cunningham added the finishing touch to a great afternoon.
Back in 2013, Trail West were the latest band to have emerged from Tiree (with a little help from South Uist) and had just released a debut album. This year’s TMF saw the launch of their second album, Rescattermastered a collection of songs and tunes from a variety of sources both traditional and contemporary. Currently, a Folk Radio Album of the Month and enthusiastically reviewed here. It’s a measure of the wider success they’ve achieved in the last three years that they closed Saturday night in the Big Top. By 11.30 a Tiree crowd is boisterous, to put it mildly, and the band that plays through to the close needs to be feeding off this energy. Skerryvore on Friday, Trail West on Saturday and Skipinnish on Sunday, all having roots on the island, were well placed to take advantage of their local knowledge. They gave the audience exactly what was needed, a combination of fast but danceable tunes and songs that everyone could sing. The crowd responded in kind, finishing off each day in a blur of movement and a crescendo of cheers. All of these bands raise West Coast Ceilidh music to new and ever more energetic heights, ensuring that TMF remains, at heart, a celebration of this spirit.
Recognising that’s the way to finish off each night means headline acts inevitably appear earlier in the evening, but Tiree’s burgeoning reputation means there’s no shortage of top class artists willing to make the trip. The big names filling these earlier slots included Breabach on Friday, The Levellers on Saturday, while on Sunday, both Blazin’ Fiddles and The Red Hot Chilli Pipers made sure the Big Top was jumping throughout the evening. We’ll be seeing these last two again very soon at Wickham Festival.
When Sharon Shannon first came to TMF in 2014, it was by sailing directly across from Northern Ireland in a RIB. She obviously relished the whole experience and last year joined Skerryvore for their tenth-anniversary event in Oban, returning to TMF this year to perform three sets. When I had the chance to talk with her she’d already played a duo set with Alan Connor, to an overflowing Live Lounge tent, and a storming Big Top set with Skerryvore and all through she’d had a smile permanently fixed to her lips. “And who wouldn’t?”, she said, the Tiree audience’s reactions resonate perfectly with her. She was about to go on stage for her final set of the weekend with Alan Connor on keyboards, electric guitar and vocals, Jim Murray on acoustic guitar and Sean Regan on fiddle and the love she clearly feels for TMF was paid back many times over by an audience that, again, gave her a rapturous welcome.
Other visitors from Ireland were Socks in the Frying Pan, though cancelled flights on the Friday nearly scuppered the plan. With two sets rescheduled for the Open Air stage on Saturday afternoon, the weather intervened again, curtailing the second set. But we heard enough of the Hayes brothers Shane on accordion and Fiachra on fiddle and banjo with Aodán Coyne on guitar and vocals to know that they are becoming a force to be reckoned with, presenting Irish traditional music in a modern, energetic style, the weather giving them the chance to show they really do have irrepressible good humour.
Also with an Irish connection was a band that I sorely missed when they took a break from performance in 2008. And worse, ever since they picked up again in 2013, performing just a few shows a year, I’d not managed to catch one. So, I’d happily have travelled to Tiree just to hear Flook again. The flutes of Brian Finnegan and Sarah Allen combine with the guitar of Ed Boyd and the astounding bodhrán of John Joe Kelly to produce traditional style music that is just breathtaking in its virtuosity. So, having watched their set with a permanent beaming smile, it was a bonus to collar Brian for a chat afterwards. We started by talking not about Flook but Kan, the short-lived quartet that he, Aidan O’Rourke, Ian Stephenson (guitar) and Jim Goodwin (drums) put together while Flook were resting. Brian still has great enthusiasm for the less traditional sounding, more world/jazz influenced music that Kan made, but it seems other commitments will ensure that the Sleeper album remains their swansong. The conversation then moved on to something that, since 2009, continues to occupy a fair proportion of Brian’s time, playing with the Russian rock band, Aquarium, led by Boris Grebenshikov. One shouldn’t be surprised that a musician with Brian’s range would opt for something so different, but just what was the attraction, I wondered? Firstly, Boris has a very hands off approach with Brian, letting him play just as he wants and secondly, playing to audiences who consider Boris almost a national hero, Brian gets to see a very different side of Russian society to that portrayed by Western media. So, with plenty to occupy his time it seems we can expect Flook to continue to be only an occasional delight. But one thing they agreed when deciding to perform again was that new material would be written. We’d heard some of this earlier, but would it find its way onto an album? Well, Brian wasn’t telling.
There’s a certain magic to Tiree Music Festival. Maybe it comes from the adventure of getting there. Maybe from having your senses given a thorough workout, as you listen to superb and varied music in so memorable a location. With its combination of a lively Atlantic on one side and the flat, wild expanse of the island on the other, the moment you step outside, there’s such a sense of space, you just have to stop and be reminded of your small place in this beautiful land. It’s a magic that’s widely appreciated judging by the speed with which the festival sells out each year, long may it continue.