SKIPINNISH – Steer By The Stars (Skipinnish Records SKIPCD28)

Steer By The StarsSkipinnish have had a spectacular couple of years since the release of The Seventh Wave and now, as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary, they find themselves at the top of the tree in contemporary/ traditional Scottish music. Now an octet with Angus Tikka being replaced by Charlotte Printer on bass and fiddler Archie McAllister they press on with a new album, Steer By The Stars, to mark their birthday. Angus MacPhail is still at the helm as principal songwriter with Norrie MacIver on lead vocals and the twin highland bagpipes of Andrew Stevenson and Alasdair Murray. They point out that the band’s youngest member, drummer Rory Grindlay, wasn’t born when the band first got together.

The sea is never far from Skipnnish’s thoughts, either literally or metaphorically and Steer By The Stars is no exception. The anchors of the opening track, ‘Anchors Of The Soul’ are of the latter variety as the song looks to a bright future for the Gaels. The title track combines both – the singer is clearly at sea but is also thinking about the person waiting at the end of his journey. From now on we’re definitely in maritime mood. The first song in Gaelic, ‘Coire Bhreacain’, is written in shanty form and although my Gaelic doesn’t amount to much, I do know that Coire Bhreacain is the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow stretch of water off the northern tip of Jura.

Next is ‘Last Of The Hunters’, one of the big anthemic songs that Skipinnish do so well. It’s a hymn of praise for deep-sea fishermen but Angus isn’t parochial and the name-checks circle the entire British coast. This is a song they’ll be playing until the seas run try. In ‘Land Below The Waves’, Angus writes of the Western Isles and his desire to be out at sea again. It’s back to Gaelic for ‘Thar Sàil (Over The Sea)’, another big song but unless I missed the point, it’s about the ferries that ply the Minch. Although they aren’t named it has to be a nod to CalMac!

‘The Atholl Set’ is the second instrumental track – one for the festival dancers – and we’re just about back on land for ‘Wishing Well’, arranged and produced by Malcolm Jones. It’s what a colleague of ours would call a “swayalong” but I’m greedy enough to want to hear more of Malcolm’s guitar. Phil Cunningham composed ‘The Youngest Ancient Mariner’, a gentle interlude for about a third of its length until the pipes take hold of it. There is a traditional ‘Puirt Set’ next and then ‘Still We Run’ harks back to the thoughts of the opening track. ‘Goodbye’ isn’t completely self-explanatory from the title and finally the band return for a set of jigs.

It only struck me at the end that, in Steer By The Stars, Skipinnish have programmed a live set and then recorded it – with all the ebb and flow you want from a concert. There are several guests, including pupils from two schools on the first track but I should mention Jarlath Henderson, Gordon Gunn and former Runrig keyboard player, Brian Hurren. The guests blend seamlessly and like all good visitors, don’t outstay their welcome. You’ll hear a few bars of whistle or mandolin but only if you don’t let the music sweep you away.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.skipinnish.com

‘Wishing Well’ – official video:

PAUL ANDERSON – The High Summit (Fingal Records FINCD506)

High SummitI sometimes while away an idle moment trying to discern trends in Scottish music and I always fail. There are young musicians playing the oldest tunes they can find, others pushing the boundaries of composition in their reinterpretation of old forms and some playing rock’n’roll on bagpipes and big drums. Paul Anderson falls into yet another category, a composer of new music that sounds as old as the Aberdeenshire hills that he’s celebrating. The High Summit is his third album of his own music.

Paul’s fiddle is the dominant sound, of course, but he has a fine bunch of supporting musicians all whom would grace any album. Top of the list, I suppose, is keyboard player and co-producer Ali Napier who also gets a tune named after him. Then there are guitarists Tony Mcmanus and Malcolm Jones bringing two very different styles to the party, Swedish cittern player Ale Carr and James Gorgon who plays extraordinary percussion on ‘Corporal Hare Of The Royal Marines/The Diamond Special’.

There are eighteen tracks on the album, many quite short, and all save one are instrumentals. Paul names his tunes after places and people in the old-fashioned manner so ‘Anne Cromar Of Morpeth’ and ‘Alastair MacDougall Of Hopewell’ get name-checks. The odd track out is ‘The Bonnie Banks O’ Dee’, co-written and sung by Shona Donaldson, who also has the closing track named for her. Shona has one album to her credit and it’s very tempting to track a copy down but I digress. The song captures perfectly the cadences and feel of the Scots tradition and if a duo album of their original songs doesn’t emerge out of this I’ll be very disappointed.

The High Summit is a lovely album, full of bouncy dance rhythms and beautiful airs. It’s a record that you can easily lose yourself in.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.paulandersonscottishfiddler.com/

Going the extra mile, Paul films himself playing ‘Balmoral’ on Lochnagar:

DONALD BLACK – Bho M’ Chridhe (own label DB05CD)

Bho m' ChridheScottish Celtic harmonica might seem like something of a niche market and that’s what I thought at first – but wait. Bho M’ Chridhe translates as From My Heart and that is exactly where this music comes from. The tunes come from all over Scotland and even further afield and feature tunes from Donald’s old friends and musical partners, some played by relatives of the composers, and a fiddle made by his great-uncle.

You know what harmonica sounds like, right? Forget all that – actually there are a few bars of train blues on ‘The Highland Express’, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. Harmonicas are free reed instruments like concertinas, accordions and many others and Donald treats them as such. Oddly enough, the bagpipes are not free reeds but several times I looked to see who was cheating by playing pipes. To put it simply, he is a virtuoso and though fans of blues harp and jazz players will point to their heroes in Donald Black’s hands the harmonica will sit up and beg. Not because of speed, although the second set ‘Pipe Reels’ could raise blisters, but because of flexibility and feel and an understanding of what the instrument can do.

Styles range from the old-fashioned dance band sound of ‘2/4 Marches’ and ‘Highland Schottishe’ to beautiful haunting slow airs like ‘Cumha Mhic Criomain’ and ‘Jimmy Mo Mhile Stòr’ through ‘Gaelic Melodies’, jigs, reels, polkas and waltzes. Donald has a fine cast of supporting musicians: melodeons, accordions, fiddles and keyboards and players include Runrig’s Malcolm Jones, Blazin’ Fiddler Alan Henderson and Skerryvore’s Alec Dalglish who plays the most beautiful electric guitar on Blair Douglas’ ‘New Island Waltz’.

So Bho M’ Chridhe isn’t a solo album in the strictest sense nor is it an academic performance of tunes. It is varied, beautiful, exciting and a whole lot of fun.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://donald-black.com/

This is an old film but it really shows off Donald’s playing of a slow air, ‘The Cuckoo’:

Trail West announce second album

Trail West - Rescattermastered

With all band members hailing from the Hebridean Isles of Tiree and South Uist, the music and culture that they were raised in remains a pure and refreshing trademark in the sound of Trail West. Rescattermastered represents the next step on the journey for this exciting west coast quartet.

With special guests including Runrig’s Malcolm Jones and iconic Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, this is an album that celebrates everything that is great about traditional music in Scotland and the appreciation that young musicians have for the tradition and culture that has helped to shape their lives.

As with the band’s first release (The One That Got Away, 2013), Rescattermastered demonstrates the incredible musicianship of frontline pair Seonaidh MacIntyre and Ian Smith through high-energy tunes and arrangements, accompanied by the multi-instrumental talents of Andrew Findlater and Alain Campbell. In addition to this, a wide selection of songs now highlight the development and maturity of a band leading the thriving scene of ‘Glasgow Gaels’ ensuring that traditional music in Scotland has a very strong future.

Artists’ website: www.trail-west.co.uk

‘Close To Home’ – official video: