The last time I saw these two absolute legends was in our own Talla an Iochdair, in September 2019, not long before lockdown. We had to travel a bit further than the end of our road this time, across as far as Talla Chàirinis in North Uist, which is a whole different island and across two causeways (with thanks to kind neighbours Robert and Isbel for the lift). The event featured as part of this year’s Ceòlas symposium, whose events have, apparently inevitably and like others (like the big cup final between Iochdar Saints and Barra that same afternoon), been somewhat disrupted by current events.
There was no stopping Aly and Phil, though, who had arrived on Uist that afternoon via Stornoway (and a ferry and a causeway) and whose September Hebridean tour seems to be a regular part of the (non-lockdown) calendar – the previous event was September too, and I can recall at least one visit taking place in September (2018, perhaps).
A local tune (‘The Shores of Loch Bi’), together with associated repartee ‘Where is Loch Bi?’ (pause for audience response) ‘I think it’s quite close to Loch A’) set the tone for the evening, being reflective and elegiac, with the first part of the gig taking place against the setting sun, the hall’s location providing a gorgeous view of the sunset over reed-filled lochs. Indeed, Phil was so taken by the scene he had popped out before the gig to take a picture; before spending the whole of the first half scratching bare forearms between numbers (you’ll need to remember the Smidge next time, Phil!).
The boys have a new album – No Rush – to promote, a typically carefully-curated collection featuring tunes from diverse sources and countries and including the pen of Phil himself, whose title references both some of the slower numbers that they play in their sets as well as their own general, and quite astonishing, lack of recordings together.
The album should have been released in 2020 and, well, we all know what happened then – No Rush also calls to mind the delay to releases and promotional tours occasioned by the pandemic. Aly is now 76 (and Phil 62) and, at this stage, and with their own health problems, this two-year delay could have potentially been fatal. We’re lucky to have them as well as other musicians whose life is performing on the stage for an audience. Lockdowns were costly for people whose livelihoods depend on performing but also, in terms of mental health, who love being on stage and in social settings. And for whom DIY failings as a means of filling the time without a gig to go to could have spelled catastrophe!
As always, the banter between the numbers provided highlights as the musicians rested, cracks about Aly’s health (‘on his 76th birthday, all his doctors came out to applaud him’), his recent marriage (where, at 76, he continues to be an inspiration to us all), Phil in the Unst bus shelter and reminiscences about appearing at Balmoral and conversing with Her Majesty about the intricacies (or not…) of playing respectively accordions and fiddles among them. After 36 years of playing together, there is an instinctive feel to their mutual playing which only comes from practice in a live setting – make no mistake, these are not so much recording artists as practising musicians – and around which they have reached an accommodation of each other’s on-stage foibles; but they’re also very comfortable with each other’s presence, gentle pats of each other at the end of each number standing for both re-assurance, thanks and congratulations. You can’t bottle that and put it on a CD.
As well, of course, of an immense repertoire of songs to pick from and to remember how to play. While jigs and reels also featured (recalling the ‘diddly pish’ of one bold Aberdeen taxi driver ferrying Phil to a gig one night), it was the slower numbers that took centre stage, with ‘Song for Liam’, ‘Irish Beauty’,’Lightly Swims The Swan’ and a Strathspey by the famous fiddle player Scott Skinner (may well have been ‘Hector the Hero’, which also features on the album*) being particular stand-outs and which pay tribute to their own advancing years: sombre in tone they might have been, yet never mournful and still capable of absolutely ripping it up. We got ‘Jean’s Reel’, of course, with Phil living up to his promise to play this tune at every gig he plays (not sure he’d get away without it – it would be like Springsteen turning up and failing to play ‘Born To Run’) and while ‘Hangman’s Reel’ was missing this time, Aly more than made up for it, his virtuosity to the fore re-creating on his fiddle the sounds of retreating horses, snorting in panic, on ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’.
They’re still on tour largely in the north of Scotland for much of the rest of September but, if they’re not coming near you, do yourself a favour, buy the album and share a flavour of performing musicians still at the top of their game and grateful to be out and about again doing what they do best: bringing live music, and memories, and romance, and dreaming, to the people. In that, more power to their elbows.
Oh yes – and Phil is still wearing the same checked shirt.
[EDIT later the same day: having now heard the album, it was.]