If there’s one event, one gathering of musical talent where the extended musical family of the late fiddler and Shooglenifty front man Angus R Grant could gather together in his memory, it’s at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. The now world famous Celtic conclave is where Angus and his Shooglenifty colleagues set up their January residence; where they took their unique blend of trad and trance to a home crowd and shared their musical mission with the widest gathering of musical minds not only from around Scotland but from around the world.
On Saturday night (21 January), in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, over 60 musicians who have been inspired by and shared Angus’s vision, spent an energetic, soulful, exuberant and, at times, emotional four hours celebrating his music, his humour, his unmitigated love of a good tune, and of a good time. Joining this celebratory throng were an equally enthusiastic horde of fans, packing the hall to the rafters, eager to indulge in a communal farewell.
Since their colourful emergence from the Edinburgh club scene 25 years ago, Shooglenifty have grown, explored and expanded their musical horizons along with the rest of the constantly evolving trad music scene in Scotland, and the Celtic Connections festival itself. There’s no doubt that among the undulating crowds of the summer festivals is where the largest audiences would marvel at, and revel in the irresistible Shooglenifty groove, but it’s in Glasgow, in winter, that the groove comes home.
Expertly compèred by west coast guitarist Ross Martin, there was a gentle start to the evening, with the rare sight of Shooglenifty seated. Joining them was the event’s first guest – fiddler, Adam Sutherland. Adam composed The Wizard for the occasion, in tribute to Angus. This gentle piece captured the spirit of Shooglenifty’s transcendental openings, a soft sway to quietly stir the soul.
The following 90 minutes were given over to some of the many, many friends Angus R Grant delighted in sharing sessions with. Those sessions could form an eclectic mix, which was ably illustrated early on by a gathering featuring Angus’s sister, Fiona Grant and his niece, Eva Corser with a family favourite – Talking Heads’ This Must Be The Place, after which Aonghas Grant Senior lead the Lochaber fiddle connection in a flawless set with Iain MacFarlane, Megan Henderson and Ewen Henderson.
Of the many Edinburgh haunts Angus, and the Shooglenifty brother/sisterhood, found a home for their music; The Shore Bar in Leith provided the setting for some of the most memorable. Opening with the beautiful Bennachie Sunrise, Mandolin player Iain MacLeod was joined by some Shore Bar regulars; fiddlers Simon Bradley and Kathryn Nicoll, and pianist Russell Hunter. A move to Perthshire introduced ‘The Birnam Quartet‘ and memories of sessions at The Birnam Hotel with Luke Plumb before a return to Edinburgh and the welcome addition of a brass section, courtesy of Toby Sheppey and Michael Owers.
Strathspeys and airs to sooth the soul, jigs and reels to stir the feet, airs and laments to bring sighs and even tears.
The spark that really put a fire under the feet of the audience, though, came from Galicia. More specifically from another favourite session haunt, the Casa das Crechas in Santiago de Compostela; and via the incredible energy of the pipes strings, drums and vocals of A Banda das Crechas. Capercaillie brought memories of their appearance as musical extras, along with Angus, in the movie Rob Roy before the epic first half drew to a close with fiddler Duncan Chisholm and piper Fin Moore joining Shooglenifty for the steady stomp of another Angus Grant favourite – Farewell to Nigg.
After an interval mix from DJ Dolphin Boy, piper Allan MacDonald opened Shooglenifty’s set with a heart-breaking solo lament before the band themselves were joined by Dayam Khan Manganiyar and Latif Khan Manganiyar of Rajasthan’s Dhun Dhura, for an extended set of epic proportions. Over the course of the next two hours, a heady groove was relentlessly shoogled by audience and guests alike. There was a memorable duet between Kaela Rowan and Karen Matheson, and Kaela’s own fascinating blend of Konnakol and Puirt à beul for The High Road To Jodhpur. A veritable fleet of the finest fiddlers included Adam Sutherland, Charlie McKerron, Duncan Chisholm, Eilidh Shaw, Gavin Marwick and Laura Jane Wilkie, and Laura-Beth Salter joined Ewan MacPherson for duelling mandolins. This extensive celebration of psychedelia and ceilidh was eventually, and reluctantly, wound up with a spine-tingling mass-fiddle encore of 250 to Vigo, and an immersive medley of Angus Grant’s favourite Queen covers sung in the style of Gaelic Psalms. Just ask yourself whether Callanish can do the Fandango and you’ll get the gist.
The entire evening was every bit as immense as it needed to be.
To have pulled together such a remarkable tribute, featuring such a wide range of friends, and in the short time since Angus’s unexpected departure in October is an admirable achievement. Shooglenifty and the Grant family have created the finest, most joyful tribute possible to their departed brother. I’m sure each and every person who came to the Royal Concert Hall on Saturday to help pay tribute to Angus has taken their own abiding memories from the gig. Apart from the warmth, the humour, and the sheer exuberance of audience and musicians alike; three performances will stay with me for a long, long time. Among a host of exceptional fiddle players, two managed to capture, more than any other, the spirit of Angus Grant’s music – full of adventure, fun and a damn fine groove. When Adam Sutherland joined the band for Venus In Tweeds, he was there for Angus, not presuming to take his place, but to provide that rare versatility and spark. Similarly, when Eilidh Shaw took to the stage for Jim Sutherland‘s Flick It Up and Catch It, I thought I’d only ever heard one person take that melody on such an adventure before. She nailed it.
From the early contributions, though, there came a sudden pang of sorrow, when Eva Corser and Fiona Grant joined Sarah McFadyen, Lara-Beth Salter, Kaela Rowan and Amy Geddes to remember that favourite Talking Heads track. This family snapshot, sharing an aspect of Angus’s life very few fans, myself included, would ever be aware of, was a moment to cherish, and one made all the more poignant as I stood, and enjoyed, and heard David Byrne’s lyrics trickle from my memory…
“I got plenty of time
You got light in your eyes
And you’re standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money, always for love
Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight”
(David Byrne, This Must Be The Place)