First time I ever saw Phil and Aly play, it was 1998 and I was a baby reporter with the West Highland Free Press on Skye. They were playing a gig down in Sabhal Mor Ostaig, in the old barn, and I had no expectations at all as I didn’t really know them. It was a tiny venue, quite possibly the smallest concert hall on the planet, but it was an incredible night, full of brilliant banter and the most amazing traditional music. I could hardly believe my ears.
Fast forward nearly 20 years (goodness me, starting to feel a little old here) to the eve of a Phil and Aly gig in An Lanntair. This time I knew exactly what was in store — nobody can make your sides split with laughter and your eyes brim with tears the way Phil and Aly can — and I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.
Phil and Aly don’t really need any introduction but — just in case — the first half of this double act is Phil Cunningham, composer and accordian player. His partner in crime is Aly Bain, one of Scotland’s finest fiddle players in the Shetland tradition.
In the words of Mike Russell in The Glasgow Herald, they are “simply the best traditional musicians you are ever likely to hear.” Totally true, but they’re even more than that. They are national treasures. Everybody loves Phil and Aly.
They’re hilarious, particularly Phil. Half musician, half stand-up comedian, he’s great craic and often tells stories against themselves which, I think, is one of the Scot’s most endearing traits. Take his tale of what happened one night they were being introduced at a concert. Bear with me here, and pretend I’m Phil…
The MC said: “We’re going to have a few tunes now from Aly and Phil.” Then a voice from the back said: “Aly and Phil are shite!” “Nevertheless…!”
Their comic timing is as perfect as their musical timing and it’s a great way to warm up the audience. No sooner had their bums touched their seats on stage, than the jokes began. “Aly and I joined Alcoholics Anonymous a couple of years ago. We’re still drinking; we just use different names.”
The craic was good the whole way through the night, right up to their introduction of their last song, The Fairy Dance (“we always finish with this and dedicate it to the English ruby team”).
I particularly liked their story about meeting The Queen after a concert at Balmoral, when she asked about the coordination required to play the accordian. “From outside my body,” said Phil, “I heard myself say, ‘why? Are you thinking of taking it up?’ As if that wasn’t bad enough, the next thing that came out was, ‘have you ever tried rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time?’ She said ‘no’, then HE said, ‘you’ve never lived!’”
Phil and Aly are a great double act but the comedy never takes over. The music is always the thing and it’s breathtaking — literally, sometimes, for Phil.
Blazin’ Fiddles the band MUST be named in honour of Aly Bain because he plays at such a speed I wouldn’t be surprised if his fiddle caught fire. “Predictably, that was a little bit faster than we hoped…” said Phil, after one set. He added: “I think what’s happening now is we’re getting worried we’re no going to get to the end of it.”
All the songs come with a back story, and the story to one tune set it up particularly nicely. Tasked with writing a piece to portray “the beauty of Ireland”, Phil gave it the working title of ‘Irish Beauty’. It stuck.
“It’s not the worst name in the world,” he said. “It could have been called Aly Bain’s Farewell to Ecclefechan.” His pal remarked: “I’ve had many good nights in Ecclefechan.” “Can you remember any of them?” “No.”
Immediately, we were into the most exquisite tune, so moving it brought tears to my eyes. Some will say we’re never happier than when we’re miserable, and that’s rubbish, but I do think we get a particular joy from being profoundly moved — and a Phil Cunningham slow air will do that to a person.
I also think the most moving tunes are often connected to place, and had the great pleasure of chewing this over with Phil and Aly after the show.
Sitting down with a dram in the Lanntair bar, Aly said: “I like beautiful melodies and I like memories and I like the visuals in my head about Scotland and where I come from.”
This deep love of country and culture has so much soul and quite a lot of romance. But, looking back on when he started playing in the 70s, traditional music “wasn’t in a very good state”, according to Aly.
He said: “Phil and I, and all of us, were trying, by travelling around, to encourage young people to take music up. Now there are lots of young players. When we started there weren’t many players, hardly any.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘if this music is as good as we think it is, it’s good enough to be played in concert halls — not only here but everywhere.
“We have this great culture. That’s what defines Scotland. It’s not Walt Disney’s Brigadoon. What we wanted to do was make people aware of what a great culture we have and to take it seriously.”
Phil agreed there were “a lot of barriers to break down”, saying they were “on the crest of a wave with no beach in sight”.
He added: “It’s about people having faith in their own culture, stepping up to the plate. Scotland as a nation is much more comfortable in its own skin (now). We used to have to go to play in Holland, Germany, France, America… Celtic music in general was so big in these countries and you couldn’t get a gig in Scotland for love nor money.”
“I just kept coming back,” said Aly — and getting into television early helped a lot. “You could play 1000 village halls but with one television show you were in 1000 homes…”
There was a time in the mid-80s when people in television were “taking a bit of a punt on this new form of music”, said Phil, and that bit of faith helped break down the barriers.
In fact, the first time Phil and Aly ever played together was on the South Bank Show in 1985, when Phil “gave Aly a bump” on the piano as his own pianist hadn’t turned up. When Aly got his own show, Aly and Friends, later on, he invited Phil to be in his band. The rest, as they say, is history.
“A country without a culture is a country without an identity,” stressed Aly. “Our biggest achievement was to get traditional music played on a blockbuster like Titanic. That opened Celtic music up to millions of people, and that’s what we achieved.”
That Irish Party in Third Class (by Gaelic Storm, by the way) put Celtic music on the global map but there’s been many changes along the way.
Phil said: “We’re seeing the audiences change over the last 30 years, we’re seeing the standard of music change, we’re seeing the increased level of young people playing. It’s become quite a firm thing that exists. It’s became an entity now that can be moulded and played for the future.”
But with that success, comes a new kind of danger. “We had this connection with the past and looked at what we could do with the music as professionals,” said Aly. “A lot of young players today don’t have that.” The challenge is in “trying to find a route back,” he added. “Where traditional music goes in the future is a difficult thing to say.”
Phil agreed. “You are plotting a path forward but you don’t know where you started your course.”
How can you navigate if you can’t take a bearing? You have to be grounded. You have to have roots. You have to have a fix to be able to travel forward.
Never forget where you’re coming from.