Towards the end of 1997, I joined a couple of hundred excited music fans at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow, gathered to see Martyn Bennett bring his second album, Bothy Culture to the live stage. Most of the crowd had already seen him perform solo, playing along to a home-recorded backing disc. This time he had formed a band, Cuillin Music; and along with Kirsten Bennett (samples, keys and backline), Deirdre Morrison (violin and vocals) and Rory Pierce (Irish pipes, flutes and percussion), he blazed a trail around Europe with a heady mix of Scottish trad, club grooves and world beats.
It’s incredible to think that 20 years later the same music would be played by a full orchestra of folk, classical and jazz musicians, led by one of Martyn’s closest friends, for an audience of thousands. Such is the enduring, and ever-expanding, love of Martyn’s music. Bothy Culture and Beyond was billed as a ‘music-vision-dance-bike spectacular’, and spectacular it most certainly was.
Starting the evening off, Skye-based techno-trad quartet NiteWorks brought the spirit of Martyn’s early adventures to the Glasgow audience with an invigorating set. Featuring guest appearances from Julie Fowlis and Gaelic vocal trio SIAN; fiddles pipes and drums joined synths, beats and samples in a fitting prelude to the main event.
The GRIT Orchestra first came together to open Celtic Connections in 2015, marking ten years since Martyn Bennett passed away at the age of 33. With Nae Regrets Greg Lawson (conductor, composer, violinist, fiddle player) seemed to achieve the impossible; reimagining and celebrating Martyn’s final album, GRIT. In his introduction to Bothy Culture And Beyond, Greg Lawson remarked that it was important to remember where the music came from, that this massive gathering of musical talent represented what was needed to re-create Martyn’s vision in Bothy Culture, a vision that celebrated the music of Islam, the music of Scandinavia and the music of Gaeldom.
Over the course of the evening, The GRIT Orchestra faithfully, and spectacularly reproduced and paid homage to Martyn’s vision. Two individual string sections provided the bulk of the sound, with Scotland’s finest fiddlers leading the trad melodies while classical violins, cellos (featuring a none other than Rory Pierce) and double bass painted the sweeping soundscapes to accompany them. There can be no boundaries in this music, though, and as the fiddle section nailed the soaring melodies for Aye?, the classical section responded with an inspired recreation of Martyn’s searing electric fiddle. Treacherous Orchestra‘s Innes Watson not only provided the deadpan voiceover for Aye?, but seemed to revel in the range, complexity, and sheer fun of the album’s various vocal parts. From the madcap tongue lolling in Tongues Of Kali to the Scandinavian Joik, and a healthy dose of diddly, every syllable was perfectly reproduced.
The spoken word was an important aspect of Martyn’s music, and on Bothy Culture he turned to Scotland’s greatest Gaelic poet, Sorley MacLean for inspiration – in Hallaig. Amidst the sound of ethereal percussion, Catriona MacKay‘s harp and a soft bird-call of low-whistle, actor David Hayman read MacLean’s English translation of Hallaig. There was a hush around the venue for the closing whistle melody, and the recording od MacLean’s own Gaelic reading of the poem (from Timothy Neat’s excellent film, Hallaig). It’s amazing to think that this was probably the only sound not produced live on the night.
In a break from Bothy Culture, Fiona Hunter and the men of the Glasgow Chapel Choir recreated the vocal splendour of Blackbird, from GRIT. Spectacular stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill was on hand to recreate his breath-taking Cuillin adventure from The Ridge, which used the track as its musical backdrop. Luckily, though, even Danny’s antics couldn’t detract from the magnificence of the music, after the soft warmth of the brass section passed the closing sequence to harp and vocalists.
The quiet calm of 4 notes was enlivened somewhat by the breath-taking All Or Nothing aerial dance theatre and was one of the evening’s more reflective passages. Bothy Culture, however, was most loved for its incredible potential to enliven an audience. As Shputnik In Glenshiel stomped out from the huge stage, it was clear from the touch of wild abandon in Fraser Fifield‘s whistle, and despite the beautiful orchestral lull halfway through, that dance was high on the agenda. Similarly, Ud The Doudouk included great big punches of brass, spirited chants from Innes, and a perfectly-timed finish. The impossibly whacky intro for Joik was somehow translated for brass, percussion & strings – and it worked! It also unified the folk and classical string sections for periods of sheer musical joy that moved up yet another notch for Yer Man From Athlone.
Soft whistles and big drum beats heralded Waltz For Hector, Bothy Culture’s final track. Throughout the night the pipes and whistles of Calum MacCrimmon, Ali Hutton, Ross Ainslie and Fraser Fifield excelled, and the multi-textured elegance of Waltz For Hector was no exception; as James MacKintosh‘s percussion section captured those complex beats perfectly, and the heart-stopping moment when all the strings picked up the melody. Finlay MacDonald took on the role of a lone piper, remaining faithful to the album’s last notes with Lament for Red Hector o’ the Battles. Other than the pipes, there was not a sound, it was as if the very building itself was holding its breath. Not for long though – there were plenty in the audience who just wanted to party – and who can blame them? The encore provided plenty scope for that – with a return to GRIT, the frantic helter-skelter of Chanter, with Calum reprising his epic canntaireachd performance from GRIT Orchestra’s 2015 debut.
In among the excitement of Celtic Connections’ 25th Anniversary, the unparalleled sense of community that exists on the Scottish music scene, and the immense sense of occasion created by an event like Bothy Culture And Beyond, it’s hardly surprising that the whole thing should go a bit whacky. High-flying jinx and Danny MacAskill rowing a boat around 200 yards north of the Clyde itself, may seem a bit extreme and, even, off the point. Martyn himself, however, wasn’t known for taking himself too seriously, if possible; was always ready to embrace the fun side of his music. To paraphrase his own description of the album’s opening – this was a big party with a pile of twaddle over the top.
This was no misty-eyed tribute, neither was it an attempt to do something more with Martyn Bennett’s music. Bothy Culture And Beyond brought Martyn’s incredible music back to a live audience and proved just how complex his ideas, how inclusive his influences and wide-ranging his imagination really were. As Greg Lawson said on the night – this was one man’s music, and it took this immense event to bring that music back to the stage. This week is the 13th anniversary of Martyn’s passing, and the music he was making 20 years ago continues to inspire today’s musicians. That’s always worth remembering.
Find out more about Martyn Bennett’s music here: http://martynbennett.com/