Two bands sold the Hebridean Celtic Festival to me this year — Astrid and Runrig. But you can always count on HebCelt to throw something new and fabulous your way and it did, in the shape of Whisky Kiss and the Red Hot Chili Pipers.
I’ve heard the Chili Pipers before and was a wee bit underwhelmed then. This time, I could see why, as a group, they are so big. They rocked the tent and there was some serious musicianship going on.
They hadn’t been the draw for me on the Friday night, though. That was Astrid. For me, the reunion of Willie Campbell and Charlie Clark was something to look forward to.
I’m old enough to have know them when they were on the go in Glasgow and on the verge of the big time — still don’t quite understand how that didn’t totally happen — and have always been amazed at how well they sing together. It is impossible to pull their voices apart.
They are so completely in tune with one another and it was heartwarming to see them so happy back together on stage in their home town. For Charles, who now lives in LA, it seemed to be doing him the world of good. “You look so beautiful, Stornoway… it’s been a minute,” he said.
It was great to hear them perform Distance — our “greatest miss”, as Willie calls it. “The sun always shines as you walk my way… is it sunny with you today?” they sang, temporarily suspending the drizzle and dreich that persisted outside.
It made me smile so much, my face hurt. I grabbed a snap of music man Jori Kim afterwards — he’d been right down at the front — and the look on his face summed up how I felt!
Willie had written Distance around 20 years ago, when he was 17. It’s a great wee track which, for me, foretold the songwriting that was to come from him.
Willie Campbell is a huge talent, as a performer but also as a songwriter, and his works just gets better and better. His recent Gaelic album, Dalma, on which he collaborated with Calum Martin, is authentic, stirring and so, so musical.
“This guy is an island treasure,” said Charles, smiling at Willie and giving him the biggest hug at the end of their gig.
It began with Astrid and it ended with Runrig — a sense, for me, that HebCelt 16 was about the Hebridean music family. But there wasn’t too much time to think on this after seeing Astrid — and grabbing a snap for posterity — as it was a quick step over to the islands stage to catch Whisky Kiss.
I had heard talk of them — Hebridean Woman Cathy Ann Macphee couldn’t get over them, after discovering them the previous night at the festival club. Like my introduction to the voice of Julie Fowlis at Hebridean Women — read all about it here — I was blown away.
This band, mainly a box player, fiddler and piper, could well be The World’s Best Ceilidh Band. They played a track called Jock’s Revenge which had reached Number 1 on iTunes in two countries: Luxembourg and Uruguay. Kinda weird but I guess we are one world…
Anyway, this was one of the biggest crowd reactions of the whole festival and seemed to make ceilidh raving a thing, if such a thing is possible (maybe a logical step if you think of the way people like the late Martyn Bennett began modernising piping).
With one word — “hold” — box player Iain Macphail kept the crowd tightly wound until he let them fly. The place was bouncing. It was one of my highlights, for sure. And I hadn’t even heard of them before that day. Classic HebCelt.
Back to the main stage, then, for the Red Hot Chili Pipers. To be honest, I don’t totally love them but loads of people do and they did put on a fantastic show. They also have some seriously good musicians among them.
Just how good is Grant Cassidy?! This snare drummer, eight times a world champion, is totally brilliant and has a rude amount of star quality and stage presence. Loved the Deliverance style ‘battle of the drums’ too.
Personally, I like the Chili Pipers best when they stay closer to more traditional music. That’s them sounding their most authentic and I love their version of The Little Cascade.
However, bagrock is their thing and they did an impressive job of Avicii’s Wake Me Up, and their anthem, We Will Rock You. Some of their covers were lovely and rather moving, including Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol.
And while Chris Judge’s singing threw me off at first — I hadn’t expected it and wasn’t entirely convinced — I can appreciate that it did anchor the songs. I was struggling to place a song (Starlight by Muse) until he started singing.
As well as making the covers more accessible, his voice also got the crowd singing along. The sound of the audience on Fix You was just gorgeous.
My favourite moment of the night, though? When the brass trio who were guesting broke into Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, backed by the Chili Pipers. Yaaaaas! There was a glamorous explosion of gold lighting (the lighting and sound were brilliant all weekend, by the way) at exactly the same time. It couldn’t have lasted more than 10 seconds but was just perfect.
I’ve heard people dismiss the Chili Pipers as a bit of a novelty act but one thing’s sure: they know how to headline a big show. I was impressed and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Come Saturday night though, and it was all about Runrig. It was always all about Runrig. I’ve been a fan for nearly all of my life. One of my earliest memories of music is, aged five, listening to Heartland on cassette over and over again.
This is the band that our crowd grew up with. My first gig was the legendary Runrig concert at the RAF hangar in Stornoway in 1991, when I was 16.
So many of their songs have spoken to me personally throughout my years. There’s obviously been many other bands to discover and enjoy along the way but, somehow, Runrig strengthen the blood.
So it was with some excitement that hubby and I headed for the festival at 9pm on Saturday, with a plan to visit the beer tent first. A couple of ciders and some blethering later — you can barely move at the festival for people to yarn to — and we squeezed into the crowd gathered in the big tent, full of anticipation.
They didn’t disappoint. Runrig are still great. One of Scotland’s biggest musical exports and the most successful Hebridean band by a hundred miles.
Excellent musicians every one and they play so tightly together. They may be massive but, at the end of the day, they’re a band not a corporation. A group who love what they do and where they’re from. And you can hear it.
They rock, obviously, but their songs have a poignancy — they have captured what the homesick Gael’s feelings of ‘cianalas’ would sound like — and this poignancy has been amplified by the addition of Bruce Guthro as lead singer, in place of Donnie Munro.
I absolutely adore Bruce Guthro’s voice. Warm, gritty, yearning and soothing, he’s up there, for me, alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen, as one of the best voices on the planet.
It was great to hear May Morning, a single from Bruce’s debut album with the band. I always thought it a song that showcased the character of his voice to great effect.
Runrig are still touring their final studio album, The Story, so naturally there were a few tracks off that. These included the title track and music video, which played on the big screens at the side of the stage. There were very effective visuals throughout, in fact.
There were good choices from the extensive back catalogue, including Dance Called America, Rocket to the Moon and What Time from The Highland Connection. Malcolm’s amazing guitar playing stood out on this one. His Bowie tribute — a few bars from Rebel Rebel — was a nice touch, too.
The defining moment came, though, with Alba — talk about getting a crowd going — followed by Skye.
The visuals here were gobsmacking. Stunning landscape footage, apparently using time lapse and GoPro, really added to the experience. But when it came to Skye — one of my favourites — I could scarcely believe what I was hearing and seeing.
As they played, they showed aerial footage of the island’s Cuillin mountains on the screens. I’ve climbed these hills and for a moment it felt like this was My Story as much as The Story. Maybe that’s the gift of Runrig.
They finished off, of course, with Loch Lomond but the last notes were from Hearts of Olden Glory. This had been the refrain throughout the show and the band led an acapella version, which the audience sang out, with all their heart. It was a visibly moved band who took their final bow.
Before the festival, Rory Macdonald had said: “HebCelt stands alone. It is the festival that is closest to the music and the people that inspired us. It is very much home ground.”
There must be a place, under the sun, where hearts of olden glory grow young.
Were you at HebCelt 16? How was it for you?!