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The Lockdown Chronicles

  AS we head into the next phase of the corona virus lockdown, I decided to put a few things down on paper to remind me of what life was like at this time.

The days are fine. Learning and recording different songs, (re)-learning Gaelic on Duolingo and catching up on TV (the new series of Manifest is superb). I was also enjoying some nice walks in the sunshine when I could avoid the hordes. Then,what had been a little niggly pain in my knee decided to become a full blown shitstorm. Walks are no longer possible, that leads to more over-eating and the inevitable weight gain. And so to the nights. My sleep pattern was far from perfect beforehand but now it is non-existent. Nights are filled with excruciating knee pain and back spasms that make it impossible to get comfortable. Going for regular walks around the flat during the night to try and ease things leads to a cup of tea and usually a biscuit or two. By the time morning comes I am in despair as to how I am going to get through this.

Then the music returns and immediately lifts my spirits and I count my blessings and look forward to the day ahead.

My hope is that the music and general upsides of the day can keep me going until I am able to get my knee x-rayed and hopefully sorted. I also hope my willpower returns and I can reduce my calorie intake to that of a small town.

You know, I never thought getting paid to stay at home would be this hard!

Stay safe, stay sane and most of all, stay happy.

Cheers

Hughie

8/5/2020

Celtic Connections 2020 – Let’s Have a Horo Gheallaidh!

Due to me buying some rather expensive tickets for the football later in the year, my Celtic Connections trip was slightly different this year but no less enjoyable for that.

The unseasonably warm weather meant a snow-free trip down for part one. The first night catch-up with my hosts and the copious amounts of whisky meant a good start to the trip.

My first day of concerts began with the Danny Kyle Open Stage which I have to say was rather disappointing this year. It’s not that the acts were bad, just that there was very little spark and special performances were thin on the ground. Day one brought one of these bright spots though with the excellent Barry Nisbet who performed a superb set of songs.

This is my 12th year at this festival and tonight was my first visit to the City Halls which turns out to be a lovely venue. The concert opened with the fantastic fiddle playing of Emma Elmoe with Villads Hoffman on guitar and an accompanying piano. They were energetic, highly entertaining and an excellent start to proceedings. The main act was billed as Lau – Unplugged and although not totally accurate they were much lighter on the electronic wizardry than normal. The gig was tremendous. Three musicians at the very top of their game producing a sometimes surreal but always enthralling concert. The performance of Lord Yester was brilliant and the encore of Ghosts was a perfect end to a super show. A wee walk into La Bonne Auberge for a couple of drinks with some Ceol Cholasa regulars (and an actual Cholasach) was a nice way to end day one.

Day two began with a trip to the cinema to see the astounding movie 1917. I needed a quiet cup of coffee afterwards before heading to the Open Stage of which I have nothing to say.

On once again to the City Halls for tonight’s main event. The opening act were the talented youngsters of the Feis Rois Ceilidh Trail (with the young at heart Anna Massie on guitar) and they were very good. The singing and button-box playing of Ciorstaidh Chaimbeul was a joy to listen to. The headline act was a collaboration between the Breton trio EBEN and the Gaelic trio Sian. Accompanied by some of the finest musicians around (including Duncan Chisholm and Jarlath Henderson) the ladies were superb. Great songs in each of their languages, (some in both) combined to make up a truly entertaining night of music.

Day three began with a bonus as Martin invited me to join him at the Rik Taylor tribute concert, Skye in His Heart. Once again the stage was packed with fine talent and the show rocked along. Sometimes very Trad, sometimes very Jazzy and mostly a great mix of the two it was excellent. The highlight for me was a simply stunning rendition of King of Rome by Eilidh Shaw and Inge Thompson. It was mesmeric and magical.

Off to Avant Garde next for a meal and catch up with a large group of Ceol Cholasa folk. The food was lovely and even though the catching up had to be done in snatches during the short breaks in the overly loud live jazz, it was a nonetheless enjoyable wee night.

It was then time for my first ever visit to the iconic Barrowland Ballroom. The lengthy and highly excited queue gave an indication that this was going to be a special night. Astrid were the support act and they did a sterling job. Keeping the place jumping with high energy songs that fitted the occasion well.

There then followed one of the best nights I have ever had at Celtic Connections. I have no idea how Peat & Diesel have achieved what they have in the last couple of years but this was just magical. From start to finish the place was jumping, the craic was flowing and every word of every song was sung by the manic audience. P & D may be a short-lived phenomena or they could go on for years. I am delighted to say that I was there at the very peak of Peatlmania and I loved every second of it!

After the manic mayhem of P & D I needed something completely different and luckily that is what I got. The New Voices piece by Catriona Price was a beautifully composed and sumptuously played afternoon concert. Based on life in Orkney, it was an excellent antidote to what had come before.

Another Open Stage followed and although this one was a little better it still missed that wow factor of previous years.

The final gig of my first trip meant yet another jaunt to the City Halls, this time for Phil Cunningham’s 60th Birthday Bash and it was another cracker. It really was a who’s who of celtic music with Phil joined by lot’s of pals including Kris Drever, John McCusker, Karen Mathieson, Donald Shaw, Hannah Rarity, Greg Lawson, Eddie Reader, Flook, Cherish the Ladies and of course Aly Bain. It was just a great night of superb music and stories with the absolute highlight being Duncan Chisholm’s playing on one of Phil’s slow airs. It was simply breathtaking.

That was the end of part one and time for a quick trip home to do some laundry and prepare for part two.

I drove down for my second trip although the weather meant a boat would have been a better option. Always hoping for better things I headed back to the Open Stage. Unfortunately weather problems meant most of the planned acts couldn’t make it. Those locals who stood in did well but again, nothing to write home about.

I then headed up to the Strathclyde Suite for the main event of the evening. The opening act was The Ledger, performed by Findlay Napier, Gillian Frame and Mike Vass. This set was based around a ledger that Findlay’s grandfather had kept with folk songs cut from the pages of The Scotsman in the 50’s and 60’s. These were great old songs, given an new twist but but still keeping faithful to the originals. I enjoyed the show so much I bought the album and would highly recommend it. I loved the new version of Twa Recruitin’ Sergeants and the epic version of Barbra Allen but every song was beautifully performed. It was left to Canadian fiddler/singer/dancer April Verch and US singer Joe Newberry to follow that and they did it brilliantly. April’s fiddling and dancing seemed to come so easy to her but left the watchers breathless. Joe’s songs were excellent and their voices worked well together. The song My Dear Childhood Days was outstanding and left many wiping away a tear, on stage and off.

My last day at the festival started with what I had been waiting for all along, a cracking Open Stage. St Rochs Ceilidh band were awesome as always, There was a group of youngsters who had met on the Ceilidh Trail called Maderum and they were very good. The final act I saw on the Open Stage was also one of the best. Muckle Spree from Dumfries are a duo with fiddle guitar and smallpipes with vocals and loop pedals and they produced a truly great set and went on to be declared on of this years winners.

Back to the Strathclyde Suite for my final concert and the support act were the ones that made me decide to do a two part trip this year. The only complaint I had about the set by The Trials of Cato was that it was far too short. They were tremendous and, judging by the diminishing pile of CD’s on the table, very popular too. The main act of the evening was Fiona Hunter and I have been a fan of her singing for a long time. Backed by Tom Gibb, Mike Vass and David Foley, she gave a master-class in Scots singing. It was a lovely way to end a totally enjoyable trip.

Well. that’s Celtic Connections over for another year. It was a good one, great music, good craic and some good company too. It is difficult to pick a favourite gig as comparing Lau with P & D or Trials of Cato with Phil Cunningham is not really possible. All I do know is, Peat & Diesel at the Barrowlands left me feeling amazing, sore and grateful at the same time and that has to mean something!

Hughie McNeill

Top Ten Albums 2019

2019 has been another great year for music. Lots of good albums didn’t quite make the list including those from Lucy Spraggan, Innes Watson, and Eabhal but here is my Top 10.

Top Ten Albums of 2019

10: Steer By the Stars – Skipinnish

Skipinnish doing what they do best. Great tunes and songs backed up by a fine live show. Last of the Hunters is a cracker of a song

9: .Contradicshun – Megson

Another fine album from the English duo. Wryly observed and witty song-writing.

8: Uptown Fank – Peat & Diesel

What can I say about the phenomenon that is Peat & Diesel? An album of feel-good music, performed with a devil-may-care attitude that is just grand to hear.

7: The Wildest Rose – Odette Michel

An album of lovely folk songs from this young English singer. all beautifully performed. This line from Great Old Northern Line tugs my heartstrings every time I hear it: “Underneath her hat there is a mist of yellow hair; like a hidden store of golden contraband” Beautiful.

6: Face the Fall – Arcade

This new project from Adam Holmes and Heidi Talbot is filled with an array of great pop/folk songs and includes some beautiful lyrics.

5: Magic Nights by Christy Moore

Released in late November, this brilliant album almost missed the list. It is a cracker with 26 of Christy’s best known songs performed in a live setting. A few more weeks to listen and it could have been even higher. All the classics are here. Before the Deluge, Sonny’s Dream, Back Home in Derry, A Pair of Brown Eyes and Spancil Hill. It is a great listen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBFjTADMoAc

4: Battlefield Dance-floor – Show of Hands

The first new album from Show of Hands for over three years and it was well worth the wait. The usual mixture of eclectic covers (including Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan) and self-penned songs are included. You’ll Get By is a top song and the Bhangra opening and off-beat chanting in the chorus on the title track work really well while Dreckly is just fun. https://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en&tab=iw

3 An Evening With – Nancy Kerr & James Fagan

I first heard this duo on Blues & Roots Radio and I totally fell in love with this album. Nancy has the archetypal English folk voice and shows it off superbly on this live album from the superb opening track Broadside to the closing sing-along of Mr Weather. Her fiddle playing is also fantastic. James’ guitar playing backs things up effortlessly and his voice is perfectly suited to songs like the moving Herald of Free Enterprise and the absolutely gorgeous The Outside Track. It is probably my most played album of the year and if you haven’t heard it, what are you waiting for? https://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en&tab=iw

I tried, I really tried but, when it comes down to it, I just cannot split these two epic albums so we will have to go with joint winners.

 1st = The Reeling – Brighde Chaimbeul & The Livelong Day – Lankum

From the moment I first heard this album in January I knew The Reeling was going to be top of this list, It is a quite remarkable piece of work and is also quite simply gorgeous. The opening track starts of with a rather wheezy harmonium and sets the tone beautifully before the pipes kick in. From then on it is just track after track of majestically played tunes. There is very little backing, just some fiddle from Aidan O;Rourke, some melodian from Radie Peat (of whom much more later) and some canntaireachd from Rona Lightfoot but it still manages to fill the room with its beauty and leaves you with a feeling that you have just listened to something really extraordinary. https://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en&tab=iw

I was sure that nothing would come close to Brighde’s album but in October that all changed. The Livelong Day by Lankum came along and I was once more left utterly mesmerised by it. When you see an Irish album opens with The Wild Rover you usually know what you are getting but think again. Lankum do a ten minute version with the old melody and the song is just taken to another planet. The band have the ability to write songs that sound like they have been around for years and the excellent guitar intro leads into The Young People which is one of these songs. The musicality throughout is just amazing. Fiddle, guitar, melodian, pipes and harmonium are used to tremendous effect. The boys’ vocals on The Young People and The Dark Eyed Gypsy are perfect and the instrumentals are sometimes surreal but always fascinating. The icing on the cake is the simply stunning vocal performance of Radie Peat on the traditional Katie Cruel and the bands’ composition The Hunting of the Wren. Her voice is indescribably good and leaves me feeling moved and absolutely entranced. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ucPl8l-YIY

Neither of these two albums could be described as easy listening. They require a degree of concentration but the rewards for the listener are immeasurable. If 2020 is going to bring anything to match these two, then I cannot wait.

Hughie

December 2019

My Scotland – The Story

My Scotland – The Story

For all of my life I have believed that Scotland should be an independent country. It wasn’t a decision arrived at through political thinking, it wasn’t based on finances or even on practicality, it just seemed right to me. Why shouldn’t Scotland be an equal of every other country? It seemed so obvious to me.

I well remember the disappointment of the 1979 referendum when 51.6% of the vote wasn’t consider enough to win (if only that rule could have been applied to a more recent referendum then we might not be in such a stagnant mess now). I remember the delight of the 1997 result, even though some people thought devolution would kill off the independence movement (how wrong were they?).

I always thought the 2014 referendum came just too early. Another two years may have made the difference. Or would it? The sad fact is that there is a large swathe of voters in west central Scotland who will cast their vote not on political grounds but purely based on what football team they support. I am a Celtic fan but I was a fan long before I even knew what Catholics and Protestants were, never mind Unionists and Nationalists. There was a picture on twitter during the Independence March in Edinburgh this summer that showed Celtic and Rangers fans united in support of independence. That may have given a glimmer of hope that things may change but that was soon extinguished by reading the deluge of vitriolic replies that followed the tweet. I will always have hope but I fear we have to rid ourselves of this bigoted thinking before Scotland can really deserve to be free.

That is the thinking behind the song, My Scotland, which I have posted on Facebook today.

Hughie McNeill

November 2019 https://www.facebook.com/hughiemachrins/videos/10159069864563835/

My Scotland

The sun shines red, on heather hills, a gentle breeze blows in off the sea;

the air is filled with sweet birdsong but something ‘s not quite right to me

The city streets are filled with life as the crowds go rolling by

the traffic roars, the laughter rings but there’s a dark cloud in the sky

ch

This is my country, this is my land, this is the place that calls to me;

and I’m still waiting for the day when my Scotland will be free.

The snow capped peaks reach the sky, the Golden Eagle soars on high

O’er misty glens, and highland hills, where stark history is nigh

The fruitful seas, the golden sands the green productive farming lands

the whisky stills, engineering skills, but our future’s not in our hands

Ch

There’s a cancer that tears our heart, and it’s been running through the years

If we don’t rid our selves of this bigotry, we will always live in tears

As life goes on, I start to fear: that I may never see the day

But in my heart I will be there when Scotland walks on freedom way

Ch.

Ceol Cholasa 2019

CEOL CHOLASA 2019 – MUSIC, MALT and HILARITY

Back to reality, back to normality, back to work, but it’s not normality as I am still riding the buzz of yet another superb week at Ceol Cholasa. I can’t stop smiling, I can still hear the music and I can sure as hell still taste the Port Charlotte malt!

There are so many memories – from the excellent performance by the school pupils at Failte, to Liam and Caitlin’s epic tune sets there (and at The Machrins McNeill’s gig and everywhere else), Sarah from Flook performing some seriously complicated flute work while standing stock still on one leg, Assynt and Imar pumping out the tunes, Edwina Hayes being simply lovely, Sian and their gorgeous harmonies, The Poozies being amazing and Adam Holmes and The Embers being awesome. Yet, despite all that, the one truly spine-tingling moment came from Pedie’s rendition of Fathers and Sons. It was special.

None of this would have been half so much fun without the punters. All those people who were once strangers arriving off the boat and are now life-long friends. I lost count of the number of times my beard was pulled or stroked or commented on (yes Les Blair, I mean you!) and some of the craic in the pub was outrageously funny.

As usual, Gavin kept us going with his endless supply of pies, rolls and burgers. Chris, Sheena and Holly kept the beer flowing at the hall and Jack, Ruby, Emily and all the hotel staff were on top form to keep things bouncing along at the Festival Club.

Now it is all a memory, the beard has been severely trimmed and I am back at work but boy was it worth it!

It was epic, it was great fun and I really think we should do it all again next year. See you all there!

Hughie

A Brief Visit to Celtic Connections 2019.

Due to my decision to spend a weekend at the European Indoor Athletics Championships in Glasgow at the beginning of March, my Celtic Connections trip was rather shorter than usual. Having said that, I still managed to pack plenty in.

After an evening spent catching up with my hosts over a fine bottle of whisky, it was time to get my musical trip started. My first port of call was the Danny Kyle Open Stage and it proved to be a good one to start with. We Three Quinns were this first act I saw and this family band produced a nice set of varied tunes and songs. They were followed by the all-female a cappella trio Tripple who were very impressive with their interesting arrangements of songs old and new. Nova Scotia based fiddler Brad Reid was next on and he played a fine set of tunes accompanied by his guitarist. I just had time to hear the opening songs from highly impressive country duo Black Feathers before I had to leave for my trip to the Mitchell Theatre for my next gig.

This event started off with one of the most surreal moments I have seen in all my eleven years attending this festival. Luis Martens took to the stage and sat at his electric harp, producing the most ethereal and ghostly sounds. Just when we were getting lost in the sounds we were all stunned when the operatic voice of Monica de Nut started singing from the back of the theatre. The show that followed was mesmerising and just ever so slightly weird.

I have long been a fan of Emily Smith but this was the first time I had managed to see her live, this time along with her husband Jamie McClennan. Their set was really good and I will definitely be checking out the album that is due out later in the year. Lovely songs and crystal clear harmonies combined to produce an enjoyable evening. A pint and a blether with some old pals in the Bon Accord finished the day off nicely.

Day Two started with another visit to the Open Stage and it started with a cracking performance from Back West, a superb ceilidh band from Galway. Their set was full of everything Celtic Connections should be about. Stomping tune sets, brilliantly played with a song thrown into the mix for good measure. They got a rapturous reception at the end of the set and another as they emerged from back stage on the way out of the hall. Needless to say, they got absolutely nothing in the awards. I will never quite understand how these things are decided. Next up were the duo with the best name of the festival, Zetor in the Kaleyard. When they started, I thought they were over-reliant on the loop station with guitar, percussion and fiddle all being played by the same person but I have to say it worked really well.

It was then time for me to leave for the walk to the Old Fruitmarket for the night’s triple bill concert. Galician singer/piper Xabier Diaz was on first with his band and they gave a rollicking performance of songs with some amazing percussion. Arcadian trio Vishten followed and, as a huge fan of their recent album, I was really looking forward to this set. I am happy to say it did not disappoint. Great tunes and songs followed and the energy was immense. Only one band could match and even surpass that energy and that was Glasgow based trio Talisk. Hayley Keenan on fiddle, Graeme Armstrong on guitar and the irrepressible Mohsen Amini on concertina produced an absolute cracker of a set filled with passion and no little skill. The audience lapped it up and it was a great way to end day two. 

Friday began with a bonus event that I had booked the day before I came down. It was a lovely concert at the RCS showcasing some past winners of the Young Trad Musician award. Anna Massie, Gillian Frame, Charlie Stewart and Hannah Rarity all showed their talents individually and together and it was a great start to the day. Along the road to the Concert Hall next for another Open Stage. Davey Horne opened things up, followed by Welsh a Capella singer Eve Telford. The best act of those I saw tonight was undoubtedly Cuan. They put on a fine set and are definitely a name to look out for. It was then time to head to the Tron to meet up and share a drink or two with some Ceol Cholasa regulars before and after the evening’s main event. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young ‘Uns was an exceptional concert.  Telling the tales of the early life of a Stockton man who was born in poverty, went on the hunger march and fought in the Spanish Civil War, it was show filled with emotion, not just with the wonderful songs but with the added poignancy of hearing Johnny tell the story himself. It was a quite outstanding event.

Saturday began with the annual Piping Concert in the Main Hall, this year being performed by the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland. The first half saw the Development band kick things off with the main band doing the second half. It was a great show with a couple of real spine-tingling moments, including a fine version of Hector the Hero.  The Open Stage was packed out and started off with the youngsters from St Roch’s with a great set of tunes and songs. There were some songs from Grainne Hunt, an excellent set from the Sam, Luc and Malin trio and I just caught a few minutes of The Boxy Gang before it was time to head off.

The Old Fruitmarket was my destination once more, this time for Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook and what a show it was. Karine, backed by an excellent band, sang some of the best Scottish pop and rock songs from the past 50 years and had the old place jumping. There were so many great moments like Louis Abbot’s stunning version of Party Fears Two and Inge Thompson’s singing of Mary’s Prayer. My own highlights were the beautiful version of Big Country’s Chance, a fine rendition of the pop classic I Could Be Happy by Altered Images and, best of all, an absolutely rocking version of The Tourists So Good To Be Back Home. That would have been a great end to the day but, as this was Super Saturday, I still had one more event to attend. It was time for a long walk back into the centre and along Sauchiehall Street to the lovely basement venue in the Blue Arrow Club. After a lot of walking and dancing it was nice to get a comfy seat and get ready for the midnight show. It was performed by former Old Crow Medicine Show singer Chance McCoy and it was another fine show. He quickly caught the mood of the crowd and the show rocked along with some great songs and good banter with the audience.

The final day began with another beautiful concert. Megan Henderson’s New Voices show, inspired by Fort William painter Christine Clark’s impressionistic paintings, was a show of great musicality and some fine pieces.

The queue for the Open Stage final was massive but the craic with Martin and Cathy helped pass the time. As usual, there weren’t many acts in the final that I would have chosen but Sam, Luc and Malin were the exception with another fine set.

My final event was Transatlantic Sessions in the Main Hall and it was a great way to end with a varied selection of singers backed by an exceptional band of musicians. Paul McKenna, Molly Tuttle, Cara Dillon, Tim O’Brien, John Doyle and Gretchen Peters all sang with Tim’s emotional song Guardian Angel being the highlight. If it is emotion in music you are looking for, no-one can deliver quite like Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. Their version of Phil’s tune, So Long Liam, originally written for his Pipe Dream tv show, was amazing. With John McCusker on fiddle and Michael McGoldrick on small pipes adding to the mix, it was a beautiful and moving moment.

So, that was it. Only 5 days but with 14 events attended and 38 acts seen I think I packed plenty in. Roll on Celtic Connection 2020.

Hughie McNeill

Random thoughts on 2018

2018 is coming to an end and, as I am not spending the festivities a I had planned, I have decided to write down a few random thoughts on the year gone by.

The music was magnificent. From Celtic Connections to Oban Live to Ceol Cholasa and the phenomenal First Aid Kit it has been a memorable year. Ciaran O’Kane’s album was my favourite of the year but it topped a list of absolutely great albums. Not forgetting the emergence of Peat and Diesel as a new and very entertaining band.

Other memorable moments include another spectacular Carluke party, meeting up with Lindsey after all these years, getting back into photography and getting started on Album reviewing.

Other random events spring to mind: Discovering that Whisky can be used as nail varnish remover which saved me from going into work with red and yellow nails.

Agreeing to help a young German volunteer to understand anything she might have difficulty with during a game of Card Against Humanity and the first two things I had to explain were Gary Glitter and Jim’ll Fix It.

Possibly most memorable of all (and definitely the most random) was a certain festival organiser doing a wonderful impression of Theresa May running through a wheat field.

It has been a generally enjoyable year and here’s to another cracker in 2019!