Glasgow in January: The Bothy Band & Altan

January 30, 2024 on 3:01 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Photographs, Pipe Bands | No Comments

That wise and great song-writer, Paul Simon, said that “music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die”. I’m not sure if in these words he referred to the music he made or if he was talking about the music he loved. I know the two are likely not quite the same; I’ll assume the later and bolt on a, “hear, hear!”. So, to be clear, I agree: music should grow and mature with you.

In the sureness of my agreement I might draw on Exhibit A: the 2024 edition of my annual jaunt to Glasgow’s stellar mid-winter Celtic Connections festival. In this year’s CC, a far cry from the rustic early festival versions of the late 1990s – where after-parties were in a fusty panelled function suite at the then un-refurbished Central Hotel (where, in these rooms, sozzled party goers might pay £3 for a messy 3 am “chicken” curry and rice). In these days, that genius fiddler, Alasdair Fraser, would be the unspoken fear an tighe, deftly marshalling after-party musical performances.

In the last 6 days I have taken in a lot of music (and socializing) – and four festival shows. Two of these show were delivered by especially hero and important performers: musicians who influenced me and countless other (and a lot of the pipe music I’ve aimed to make) yet, paradoxically, there are no Highland pipers in these bands. But our music sits in the land of the traditional, regardless of the vehicle used to send out the notes: voice, fiddle, accordion, whistle, flute, Uilleann or Highland pipe, well, it’s all interconnected, it seems to me. As are we, for that matter.

In the case of one of the bands, the group I was to hear on the day I landed in Glasgow, I had a coincidental and brief exchange in advance of the concert.

I was flying to Scotland via Dublin and due to Storm Senga (or was it Isha?) air traffic was backed up due to the knock-on effect of flight cancellations. My delayed flight to Glasgow had me in a jet-lagged, waiting and arse-numbing state at Dublin airport. Hanging around the lounge, drawing on all I had to keep my eyes open, I caught sight of a slightly familiar visage: a person resembling that Maestro of “Celtic” traditional music, Dónal Lunny. Could it be him?

This was noon on the Monday his band was to play at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall at half-past seven that day – only hours away. Surely, I thought, he and his crew were already in Glasgow in pre-concert sound-check mode (you will have guessed, of course, I am talking about Lunny’s brilliant group, The Bothy Band – one of the two atomically fantastic role-model bands I was excited to hear at this year’s Celtic Connections!). So, in a weakened state of fanboy I did something I’ve never done: I walked up to a person I didn’t know but admired – and said, “Excuse me, are you Dónal Lunny?”. He nodded – he, too, likely fed the hell up with the time-wasting that waiting from Storm Senga delays gave us. I passed along a few words of praise – and quickly fucked-off back to my still-warm seat. We all finally boarded the ATR-42 prop plane, crossed the Irish Sea, landed in the waning headwinds of Senga – in what I can only say was the bumpiest, most gut-churning landing of my life.

The Bothy Band is a band of intensely expert talent. Every member a virtuoso musician and tradition-bearer of the very highest order. I encourage anyone who has never heard of them (and I ran into a few young pipers this week who, sadly, had not) to check them out. I recommend, their truly seminal recording, “After Hours, Live in Paris”.

So what’s so great about them? Excellent chops – musicianship – aside I suggest it is their timeless taste in how they treat melody and rhythm: each member can spot a great melody from a mile away. Their use of harmony, rest and tempo to create energy is, to this day, unrivalled. Their sound, the timbre of their instruments almost indescribably spine-tingling. What a treat for me – or anyone – to hear them, safe and sound in Glasgow, and, thankfully, full of life.

The second of these two mentioned bands was another Irish band, among the best-of-the-best of the Island: Altan. Their show with The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was an emotional and slick display of musicianship showcasing the band’s intense love for the music of the Irish Gaeltacht, a core element of their sweet brand.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, a founding member (along with her late husband, Frankie Kennedy) and a person that holds a huge part of the soul of the band, seamlessly connected the band with the vibrant SCO. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh: what a talent, what a spirit. She deftly led the release of luscious music from the deepest of emotional places. I’d have to think this is an essential part of what makes them great. I can’t put my finger on it this moment … but their music moves me.

And on these nights I wasn’t alone [pictured L-R:me, Craig Turnbull, Bruce Gandy, Duncan Nicholson]. Both sold out shows. And, a little poignant for me (is a “little poignant” possible?) it was by chance that my pal, Bruce Gandy and I took in both shows.

These bands were serious influences of the music we – Bruce and I – aimed to create when we were comrades of the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band of our mutual vintage. These bands were among those that seriously made us feel something. They excited us – and lots of our pals, and Bill Livingstone, in the 78th of those days – and inspired us. Bruce and I talked this week of these times – and – how great it was to take in their magic these years later.

The Bothy Band and Altan: still great, still inspiring. And, for the record, still inspiring the 2024 edition of The 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band. Their music has surely grown and matured with me. Just as you said, Paul Simon

To The Bothy Band and Altan,

Go raibh maith agat,

Thank you.

M.

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