Skipinnish Records – 28 April 2017
If you’re familiar with the harbour at Oban, you may well recognise the name Skipinnish. Skipinnish Ceilidh House is prominent in the parade of shops facing the bay, and the shared name is no coincidence. Along with a sister house in Fort William, it’s owned by accordionist Angus MacPhail and piper Andrew Stevenson, two original members from when Skipinnish, the band, formed back in 1999. I suspect, though, they currently spend precious little time in the ceilidh houses given the band’s level of activity over the past year and a half.
Early 2016 saw big changes, leading to the line-up that has produced The Seventh Wave. In brief, long standing members Robert Robertson and Ross Wilson left to form Tide Lines, and Norrie MacIver joined as lead vocalist and guitarist. The core line-up is completed by Alistair Iain Paterson on piano, Alasdair Murray on Highland pipes and whistles, Rory Grindlay on drums and Angus Tikka on bass.
I first heard this line-up last year at Oban Live and was bowled over both by the music they were producing and by the almost ecstatic reaction it produced in the audience. When a Scottish audience gets behind a band, it doesn’t matter if it’s a village hall gig to a few dozen people or playing to several thousand in a sports stadium, the energy, atmosphere and rapport that’s generated leaves you forever grateful that you were there and were a part of it. Listening to The Seventh Wave comes about as close as any studio album could to replicating this feeling.
The album opens with Norrie giving full voice to a new song, Alive, written by Angus. The lyrics, a celebration of being alive in a world that is full of wonder, despite the need to struggle for survival against the elements. Sentiments that can apply anywhere but have a particular resonance for lives lived in the West Highlands, the Islands and in the surrounding seas. This strong sense of place recurs in lyrics throughout the album, every song conjuring up memories for anyone who’s ever lived or travelled in those parts of Scotland. A yearning for home and a longing to return has been a familiar theme in Scottish songs, probably ever since Scots first ventured abroad. Harvest of the Homeland, the first joint writing effort from Angus and Norrie to make it onto the disc, explores the theme, focusing on the return to a rural way of life in the Gàidhealtachd.
Before last year’s line-up changes, the Skipinnish songwriting team was Angus, and Robert Robertson and the remaining six Skipinnish compositions on the album are credited to the two of them. Walking on the Waves, December and The Island are reworkings by the new line-up of older songs; the other three are new. The majority of Skipinnish’s songs are big productions with strong choruses, anthemic is a good description. It’s these qualities that make them such a phenomenal live band, ensuring audiences join in and sing their hearts out. So how do you capture that on a studio recording? Invite in all your friends is the answer. Eleven guest musicians are named on The Seventh Wave along with the unnamed and unnumbered members of the Skipinnish Mass Choir. Skipinnish recording sessions must be quite a party. Among the guests are some very familiar names. Archie McAllister is the band’s ‘go to’ fiddler, frequently appearing on stage with them along with vocalist Rachel Walker. Other guests are likely to be busy elsewhere, Breabach’s James MacKenzie, Trail West’s Seonaidh MacIntyre, Skerryvore’s Alan Scobie and Gordon Gunn from Session A9 amongst them.
There is another, quieter side to Skipinnish, highlighted here by The Iolaire. The sinking of the Iolaire on New Year’s Day 1919 was a tragedy the magnitude of which, for an isolated island community, is almost impossible to comprehend. The ship was bringing back to Lewis men who had fought in and survived the First World War. It hit rocks just yards from the shore and less than a mile from Stornoway Harbour. The death toll was over 200, and just 75 Islanders made it to safety. Norrie, a Lewis man himself, gives a splendidly controlled but emotional vocal over initially sparse accompaniment from Alistair on piano, Alan Scobie’s keyboards and Archie’s fiddle. The accompaniment builds but drops away for the last verse from 2014 Mod Gold Medallist, Caitlin L R Smith. She continues with part of a 19th Century Gaelic song in praise of Lewis, Eilean Fraoich, that’s taken up by the Mass Choir to end a track that leaves you with an emotional time bomb ticking away at the back of your mind.
Two other songs feature on the album, Skipinnish give a respectful nod to the inspiration provided by Runrig for the past 40 years with a version of Alba, and the album closes with the traditional slow air Crò Chinn t-Sàile, not a direct translation, but usually referred to in English as I Will Go Home to Kintail. The melody is played on accordion, then pipes and finally with the vocal. They’re not credited, but it rather sounds as though the Mass Choir sneaked in for one last sing.
With Norrie contributing for the first time since becoming a permanent member of the band, it’s no surprise that his superb vocals feature so strongly. But Skipinnish certainly haven’t forgotten their roots as a dance band, and three storming tune sets complete the album. The ‘Pogo’ forever became associated with 70’s punk but for me, it’s typical of a young, and sometimes not so young, Scottish audience every time the Highland pipes take over the tune in a dance set. Get into the spirit of the tunes on The Seventh Wave and chances are it’ll put in an appearance in your kitchen as well.
Last August, Skipinnish were asked to take on the awesome task of replacing Shooglenifty at Shrewsbury Festival following the sad passing of Angus Grant. To say they nailed it is such an understatement. They went down so well they’ve been asked back this year. So, if you’re going to be at Shrewsbury, make sure you’re in good voice and have your dancing shoes with you. In the meantime, listening to The Seventh Wave is as good a substitute as you could hope for.