Saturday, November 21, 2009

Perthshire Amber 8

The Big Gig

On a frosty Sunday morning (and I literally mean frosty, it was -4 again & the world had turned silver & misty), four Súnas members took a caffeine & nicotine addicted Scotsman to Perth Theatre in their trusty steed Mick Jaguar. Not because we were pleasant company or anything, but because it was ‘fookin’ baltic’ outside & Dougie loved the heated seats.

Once we arrived it was all systems go rolling big carts full of gear onto the stage where the sound guys would plug everything in and ascertain a general air of order, which meant soundchecking would happen as soon as they had finished the subwoofer stress test (awesome, but not much fun when you’re right behind the stage!).

Then something happened that was unexpectedly wonderful –we were firmly told by Julia that as we were on the bill for tonight our role as backstage helpers was over & we were from now on performers who should relax in their dressing room.

It felt so weird. Wonderful, but weird!

The first thing that happened after this revelation was that, three hours before we were due to go onstage, Dougie grabbed us all and had a conversation:

Dougie: ‘I’ve finally cracked it!’
Paul: ‘What?’
Dougie: ‘You guys are gonna do Singing Land with me tonight! Ok?’

We glanced at each other nervously. Ok, no worries, but we had originally been asked to rehearse & perform Turning Away. But sure, Singing Land it was!

Dougie: ‘It needs a tune in the middle of it though. Something slow-ish that fits the rhythm.’
Bridget: ‘Sarah wrote a tune that fits!’ She explains to me which tune she is talking about.
Dougie rounds on me & commands: ‘Hum it.’
I, slightly shocked at this point, comply.
Dougie: ‘Perfect. Get your instruments, be in my dressing room in 5 minutes, we’ll rehearse it, then sound check it, then you’ll be ready to go. Ok?’

Not wanting to argue, we threw down some juice & egg & lettuce sandwiches & went to get our instruments. Thank GOD for iPhones. I quickly downloaded Dougie’s lyrics & pasted them into my notes as I knew he’d want me to sing a verse. 5 minutes later Dougie herded us into his dressing room to rehearse Singing Land. It was actually a lot less stressful that we had thought, Dougie makes a point of writing melodic yet simple songs and we had it up & running in no time. We ran through my tune a few times & considering it had never been performed it before it was pretty thrilling! Then Dougie & I had a conversation that went like this:

Dougie: ‘That’s a great tune! What’s the name of it?’
Me: ‘ “Tune for Bridgey” ’
Dougie: (pause) ‘Really? That’s the name?’
Me: ‘Er, yeah. It’s a fiddle tune, I wrote it for Bridget’
Dougie: ‘Can’t we rename it “Mist on the Loch” or something?’
Me: ‘Um, well … ‘

In the end it didn’t matter about the name of my tune, but I was still thrilled that we were debuting it at Perthshire Amber! We soundchecked easily, had a lovely ‘wow’ moment learning that Dougie’s stellar band would be playing with us on Singing Land and Tune for Bridgey. Wow indeed. I was also asked by the lovely Eliza Lynn to sing some harmonies on her fantastic old-timey bluegrass song ‘Apron’, to which I was happy to oblige.

And then the nerves set in. Not performance nerves, but shaking, cold sweat & stomach cramping to the point of throwing up kind of nerves. Which is odd in my case, because I very rarely, if ever, feel like this. I was so nervous I couldn’t finish my dinner (which hardly happens) or talk to anyone (which never happens) and just went downstairs to get ready to go onstage.

Dougie went on first and performed ‘Holding Back’. This song will always be synonymous to me of the time when the four of us were waiting in darkness backstage in a theatre in Scotland clutching our instruments and surrounded by friends who had become family over the last two weeks. Then, it was our turn.

I remember the lights blinding me and how cold my hands were attaching Bridget’s fiddle mic to her dress. I remember the audience laughing at our crap jokes and during our tuneset looking over to see that the rest of my bandies were having a fecking amazing time. Dougie came on with his didge & we played Travelling Man, then went straight into Singing Land. I remember singing Dougie’s verses and not making any mistakes. As we were going into my tune I will always remember the drums giving it a massive entrance and the rest of Dougie’s band joining in, including the amazing Ali on electric guitar and Chris on bass. And just like that it was over and the Swedish band Calaisa were performing.

I was so proud of my bandies

After Calaisa performed we had an interval and signed masses of CDs… and I began to realise that my nerves weren’t nerves at all, but food poisoning. I made my excuses, ran upstairs into our dressing room bathroom and proceeded to throw up so violently that I thought a boot would come out of me. After ten minutes, I fixed my hair & makeup, cleaned my teeth, chewed a mint and went downstairs to accompany Eliza onstage. There was no way I was letting her down!

Sarah Performing with Eliza Lyn and Duncan & Sorren MacLean

Francis Black followed Eliza and then we all assembled to sing ‘This Love Will Carry’ followed by 'Caledonia'. During soundchecking we were told that there would be some pyrotechnics but that we weren’t allowed to turn around and look! So coming into the last chorus of Caledonia, we could see the audience lit up by 12 fountains of sparks, and came offstage in rapture and excitement & ready for the final encore of Auld Lang Syne.

Only it didn’t come.

Dougie was literally on stage thanking everyone when the smoke caused by the pyrotechnics set off the theatre smoke detectors and they started shrieking insistently. The fire brigade was automatically called and the theatre had to be emptied immediately. The majority of the audience had handed their coats into the cloakroom –and they weren’t allowed to retrieve them, they had to go outside straight away. It was another chilly night, down to -4.

So what did we do? The girls from Calaisa grabbed Soren MacLean's guitar out and started singing ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’ to the irritated waiting crowd. They went absolutely crazy and demanded more, so the girls gave their guitar to Paul & we did ‘Sylvest’ and we were in fear of getting mobbed afterwards. It was fantastic!

What a way to end a tour!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Perthshire Amber 7

Tonight was wonderful.

It was a fairly cruisy day as there wasn’t much to organise apart from the Dougie & Friends concert tonight. I was really looking forward to this one as tonight’s concert featured Julie Fowlis, who happens to be one of my favourite singers!

Seeing as our beloved Helen & the unstoppable Lyn were at Perthshire Amber attending the shows we all decided to go out for lunch. It was cold & wet (surprise there! I loved it) but we were inside a fascinating hotel cafe that had its own chocolatier. The smell was mouth-watering to say the least, and although I didn’t buy any chocolates (I’m only a fan when I’m in the mood which isn’t often), I was quite content to breathe in the heavenly aromas whilst enjoying my latte. I’m a caffeine addict, what can I say? We all had a moment having lunch together –Sunas with Helen, halfway across the world sharing incredible moments and having great laughs– surreal!

Then it was back to the Pitlochry Theatre where Bridge & I got straight into our official Perthshire Amber jobs –buying the riders. I had no idea what a rider was until Jenny explained that it’s a list of food/drink/other particulars that each performer (or their agent) has requested, and then Van Halen’s legendary requirement of a bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones taken out made much more sense! I am happy to report that there haven’t been any requests for weird things. The weirdest one of the lot was an iron & an ironing board, which actually made perfect sense. A lot of the time it was just guess work, as the list would be quite vague, eg, fruit, snacks, alcohol. So we’d go ahead and guess. The most popular food items that Bridge & I bought regularly were grapes and Maltesers!

After we had stocked everyone’s dressing rooms with their riders, we walked back upstairs to the theatre foyer and found Paul gesturing wildly for us to come up into the theatre. We get up there, Paul opens the door, and soundchecking on stage with Dougie was Julie Fowlis & Eamon Doorley. I’ve never been more spellbound in my life. Julie is nearly 9 months pregnant and combined with her small frame looks ready to pop! Bridge & I were then assigned the task of looking after everyone backstage, meaning we’d actually get to meet everyone. Brilliant

We sat down to dinner and met the MacDonald Brothers who are absolutely lovely. These two guys rose to fame on the British X Factor four years ago and came fourth. Not a bad effort, considering they were a wedding duet beforehand! What struck me (and this goes for every major performer I’ve met so far) is apart from being funny is how humble they are. They couldn’t believe their good fortune getting so far on the X Factor and were delighted to be performing with Dougie.

Our jobs were assigned this way: Mannie, Larry, Mike & Finn usually did the job of charming the audience beforehand and sold programs. I believe Finn sold the most because he knew everyone (having grown up with Dougie I literally mean Finn knew everyone). Paul was Dougie’s right hand man, making sure he had the right guitars on stage and generally making sure Dougie didn’t speak too much to save his voice. Bridge could be found at the merchandise desk (I helped on and off, but UK money still confuses me & I’m not quick with foreign change, so I left it to the professionals), but usually Bridge & I were with Dougie’s daughter Julia in the sound room making sure the live internet stream was working and relaying problems to the sound guys during the concert, as well as making sure all of the performers were happy.

Watching Julie & Eamon perform was magical. Eamon is an incredibly sensitive bouzouki player; he and Julie performed at 45 degree angles so as to always maintain eye contact – and it was breathtaking. From a performer’s perspective I have never seen a pair follow each other they way they did. Julie told me later that she & Eamon normally have a 5 piece band backing them & it was the first time they had performed together as a duo for a while, so they were really nervous. They were perfectly in time in a ‘this-is-difficult-but-we’re-not-letting-it-show’ kind of way. What impressed me the most was Julie’s ability to sing mouth music whilst heavily pregnant and still stay perfectly in tune – she sounds exactly like her recordings. They are both lovely humble people and it was just wonderful to watch their gig!

Tomorrow night is our Big Gig. It’s now 2am, and we have to be gig-prepped & ready to meet at Pitlochry Theatre for 10am to decide on the schedule for the day, as we have to move all electrical & sound equipment to Perth Theatre. I’m trying not to focus on it too much; we have more important things to think about before then, like which song of Dougie’s we will be performing with him …


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Perthshire Amber 6

Bit of a tough day today. Dougie is holed up at the theatre with an old incarnation of his band rehearsing for the Indigenous Concert this evening. It’s an interesting idea, following on from last year’s complete recital of The Search. Basically, it’s the Indigenous album in its entirety. What’s hard is that I gather Dougie hasn’t seen some of the musos for years, let alone play with them (his bands are always changing, based on the needs of the albums).

Rehearsals for Indigenous

But… before the album concert we have Eliza Lynn (who is also a volunteer like us) and Ross Ainslie & Jarleth Henderson. Eliza is a very cool cat, and she’s accompanied by Sorren and Gordon MacLean on guitar and double bass, so it’s a very laid-back show.

Ross and Jarleth lift off the roof. Twin sets of pipes, flutes and a guitarist backing them. Some of the stuff is just mind blowing. These two guys are, to quote the Glasgow Herald, ‘ridiculously talented’.

I wasn’t feeling too great during the second, Indigenous half, and I spent a lot of time outside getting some air, but what I did hear was really good, especially the very dramatic entrance with the smoke and drums. I’m not sure if the concept of playing a whole album will be back next year, as I gather it was quite stressful and hard to put together, but personally, I think it's a grand idea.

It’s here that I should probably digress a bit and talk about Mannie. He seems to have appropriated the two Canadians, Mike and Larry and formed a special crack volunteer squad called Team DeManic. Never in my life have I seen programs sold with such gusto. Occasionally they’ll rope in Finn (who is an old friend of Dougie’s from the isle of Lewis, in the Hebrides. When we were introduced at Butterstone, something clicked and I said, “So you're *that* Finn?”. Turns out he’s the Finn from Dougie’s song, ‘Feel So Near’ and we’ve been singing about him for years. He’s just the loveliest man, with a very funny sense of humour and possibly one of the gentlest souls we’ve met). So anyway, Mannie is well on the way to corrupting the Two Canadians. It’ll be interesting to see how they are after a week or so...

Team DeManic, from L to R: Mike, Mannie, Finn and Larry

Perthshire Amber 5

Short day today, just a small gig over at the Edradour Distillery, in the hills behind Pitlochry. Dougie playing fiddle with John Morran, a wonderful DADGAD guitarist. I’ve actually been looking forward to this gig, as I love a lot of the tunes Dougie has written, and I got to meet John on our first night at Butterstone and he’s a lovely lovely guitar player. And of course it’s at Edradour, the smallest distillery in Scotland (possibly the world), and maker of possibly the best whisky I’ve ever tasted -but more about that later.

It’s a great show, subtle, beautiful, made all the nicer for being in a beautiful stone-floored room with an attentive audience. John and Dougie even played a fair bit from the actual Perthshire Amber album (and one of my favourite tunes, Mr and Mrs MacLean from Snaigow which he wrote about his parents), and I could see Sarah’s fingers itching to play the Perthshire Amber flute parts!

Edradour have just released a special 12-year old single malt that they’re calling Caledonia, in association with Dougie, and it’s a very special drop, but not as special as the dram I had later that day. Andrew, the distillery owner sidled up to me that evening and asked if I’d like a try of ‘something interesting’. He produced a very shifty-looking flask from his pocket and poured me a shot of what was quite easily the greatest thing I have ever tasted. It was a 45 year old single he’d just decasked (not sure if that’s the right word, I was far too away with the whisky faeries to remember). I doubt anything will ever come close to that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Perthshire Amber 4

Blair Castle.

Big gig this one. Very posh castle. We’re warned not to take photos of the pictures as they’re worth over £5 million. There are guys here that talk into their sleeves and are probably packing collapsable claymores that shoot killer bees. We have our walkie-talkies with ear pieces, so whenever we see them, we put our hands on our ears and whisper conspiratorially just to freak them out.

Neil Gow's portrait and fiddle -still playable!

The main hall is large, and covered from wall to wall with items ranging from Scottish legend Neil Gow’s fiddle to rifles, sabres, shields, the aforementioned paintings, and racks of antlers.

Lots of antlers.

In fact, there are so many antlers the room looks a little to me like the inside of one of Clive Barker’s better nightmares. There’s just so much pointness. Hundreds. I’m not kidding. Even the corridor to the green rooms is lined with them. Every time we walk down a corridor we put our spread hands up on our head and gallop. Some even have little plaques like:

Wee Huge George.
Duke of Cornwall

I’m assuming that’s the stag’s name, the shooter and the year. Unless I’ve really got it wrong and that was the Duke of Cornwall's nickname! It’s quite amazing, and the rest of the castle is incredible. I tuned a guitar next to a case containing Bonnie Prince Charlie’s riding gloves (he had small hands) and one door down is a room containing hundreds of pikes, sheilds and swords.

So, onto the gig.

We found out earlier that guitarist Boo Hewerdine won’t be acompanying Heidi Talbot and John McCusker tonight, which is a real shame as we bought his album and have been playing it to death.


Replacing him are Ewan Vernal on bass and none other than guitarist Ian Carr. Two stalwarts of the Kate Rusby band (three if you reminisce and include McCusker). So we’re in for a treat. Tempurature is dropping though. By 4pm it’s already hovering around freezing, and up here, freezing really means freezing. Cloudy breath, stampy feet, and even the locals are muttering about the first frost.

The gig was fantastic. Heidi Talbot is very funny, and her thick Kildare accent is quite a standout amoung all the Scottish ones (and Ian Carr’s Welsh). The band are a tad rusty, having really been thrown together for tonight, but it’s a great show. McCusker is just a force of nature. There’s little that man can’t do, including write amazing songs and tunes (we play a couple of his tunes ourselves) and play fiddle, cittern, low whistles and piano. He's also very funny. Ewan Vernal is like a slightly ‘morning after’-looking Alan Rickman while Ian Carr is simply brilliant. He has such a unique, almost ‘accidental’ way of accompanying tunes and songs on his guitar. Best thing of all, they were all a really good laugh! Heidi is quite pregnant too (along with Julie Fowlis, and, we just found out, Cara Dillion. Add to that list Kathryn Roberts who’s just had bubs, Kate Rusby and Nancy Kerr, and I think I can see a bit of a conspiracy here. Looks like everyone decided now is a good time to get preggers so there’s always other kids around at festival. Just a theory).

Bridget and Heidi

Dougie’s show was great too. It was just him and Ross, playing his flutes and warpipes. Dougie’s ear has been troubling him a fair bit today, bit it’s amazing to watch him go from pacing and fretting in the dressing room to being an utter showman the moment his feet touch the stage. Ross has to run off the stage to tune the pipes in another part of the castle as they’re so fecking loud. Even so, while he’s tuning and Doog is tuning the guitar to him, there’s this incredible ghostly wail. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of warpipes (he also plays small pipes and Uilleann) but feck… to hear that noise sent my hair right up! The highlight was Dougie's version of the Neil Gow song, Gloomy Winter, which Michael Nyman used as the 'base' for the music for the Piano. I put 'base' in quotes there as to me they're identical, and there are a lot of Scots pissed about the appropriation (and Oscar I think)!

That's John McCusker and Heidi Talbot in the foreground, watching Dougie's show

By the time we’re packing up it’s ‘Fooking Baltic’ to quote a local singer/songwriter. Even Mick Jaguar is flashing warning lights about black ice, and indeed, the drive back had a few hairy moments. But Fat Mick and his traction control and heated seats saw us through.

By the time we got back to Atholl Palace, it’s -4c.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Perthshire Amber 1.5

(Somehow, this blog slipped through the upload, so it's a little out of sync)

It’s fecking cold at the Crannog, but then considering it’s a recreation of an ancient loch dwelling on Tay, I’m surprised that I’m surprised. It’s another beautiful day, though the wind has come up, and it’s the kind of wind that slices through regular jackets as if they were string vests. I’ve fallen in love with my thin Merino layer and hefty Paddy Pallin Polartec.

This is probably the most exclusive and special of all the gigs. The Crannog only holds 30 people, and that’s including artists and crew, so the the tickets are aways the hottest sellers and had gone months ago. This year it’s a solo show around a roaring fire, though in previous ones the rest of the band have squeezed in. The Crannog is a round building sitting out on Loch Tay (which itself is incredbly impressive) on stilts. It’s connected to the mainland by a stilt bridge, and is big enough that there would have been livestock inside to. We could do with a few warm Angus cows right about now.

As much as I want to stay, I have to head off to Castle Menzies (pronounces Mingus) to help prepare for tonight’s gig, another small one inside, and you might have guessed, a castle. But the girls are getting to stay, so hopefully they’ll be able to sneak inside to hear the gig.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Perthshire Amber 3

Tuesday night was the gig at Dunkeld Catherdral, an incredible 13th century church that was razed during the reformation in the 16th Century. The quire/presbytery and the main tower were rebuilt a little bit later (I was told that the church wasn’t really supposed to be burned, just have all its iconography stripped, so it sounds like a few people had had a bit too much to drink). So the quire is this incredble room, basically like a nave, with stunning high wooden ceilings, stained glass and a pretty cold stone floor. The cathedral sits right on the banks of the Tay, which is a the fastest-flowing river in Europe, and certainly looks it. The waters are contantly boiling past at the rate of a rapid jog. When we arrived, the rains were just clearing and the sun was streaming though the huge larches and Douglas firs in the grounds.

The sound guys had already been in and rigged the place out, but I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on the soundchecks. When Mike McGoldrick blew that first stream of flawless notes on his Bb flute, it was just sublime. John Joe Kelly and Ed Boyd (so essentially, it was Flook without Brian and Sarah -Mike McGoldrick was in the original line-up) fire up, and the empty cathedral was washed in this incredible music. It was a stunning moment.

It was a great show. Dougie played acoustically with Ali on second guitar and Chris on brilliant 5-string bass, and the highlight of his set was probably the cathedral --which by this point was filled with about 200 people-- singing along with a very nicely augmented version of Caledonia. I still don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone play to an audience the way Dougie does. All he needs to do is walk on and smile, and the night is his. We even managed to get Helen and Lyn a couple of last-minute tickets.

The McGoldrick Trio played a fairly laid-back set, including a beautiful Pierre Bensusan arrangement that just silenced the audience. Of course, the set couldn’t last long enough for us, and not seeing John Joe utterly tear up the bodhran was dissappointing, but only in a very minor way. Because we’re working behind the scenes, usually it’s our job to take care of the performers, and we’re all happy to say that they’ve all been absolutely wonderful. The trio were humble, happy and very funny, and most importantly they love what they do with a passion that is just inspiring.

A full moon rose out over the mountains behind the ruin of the cathedral, and later on in the evening, as the temperature dropped, mist crept across the fields. It really wasn’t too hard to imagine the Scottish warriors running through the fog, carrying the baby Mary, future Queen of Scots through Dunkeld to safety.

After the gig, we drove back through the mist to Atholl Palace, where there was a fire in the grate (it was 1c by now), whisky 80 shilling ale and most imporatnly, tunes. I wasn’t like a normal session. Everyone was continually swapping instruments (I played John Joe’s bodhran -which has me thinking about a new one-- Mike McGoldrick’s bouzouki, and Eliza’s 5-string banjo. All badly when compared to their relative owners, but it was great fun. The night ended at about 5am, but not before Sarah had picked Mike’s hard drive clean of tunes!

Pulled up ok the next day, surprisingly, but luckily it was a smaller show in the truly wonderful Edradour distillery, the smallest distillery in Scotland. I’ve been drinking a fair bit of it this trip, and along with Talisker, it’s become something of a favourite. The show was an odd one; the Fiddle show, with just Dougie playing his fiddle tunes with John Moran, a wonderful DADGAD guitarist. It was a beautful hour of great tunes, including The Gael, Mr & Mrs MacLean from Snaigow and some of the ones from the Perthshire Amber album. The distillery is in a tiny hidden glen, in the hills behind Pitlochry, and it’s really something. Only just big enough to be a commercial distiller, it makes some of the smoothest most delicious whisky I’ve ever tried, and Andrew, the owner is always quick to offer up a dram for us helpers (and the whisky cake is just criminally good). Hopefully I’ll have enough weight allowance to bring some back!

It’s Thursday now, and I’m sitting in an old chair at the Pitlochry Theatre writing this. Some of the others are off at Blair Castle, setting up for tonight. I pulled guitar duites, (which basically means I have to make sure Dougie remembers them) so I’ve got a bit of time to kill. We’re just been told we’re doing a spot tonight on Cabaret Amber, which is here in the theatre. We’re thinking of bending the rules a bit and doing Ready for the Storm and the Gael. Dougie will be here listening so that might be fun! Then the four of us have to manhandle Dougie away from the bar, into the Jaguar and whisk him off to Blair Castle for the show. Tonight it’s Heidi Talbot and her band (John McCusker and Boo Hewerdine!), Ross Ainslie (who is an incredible piper/whistler/zouk prodigy) and Jarleth Henderson. Should be a incredible show in a unique venue. Then of course, it’l be back to Atholl for another hopefully very late night of tunes. Wish you could be here!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Perthshire Amber 2

I'm currently sitting with my fellow support crew in front of an enormous log fire in the drawing room of Castle Menzies while Dougie is upstairs doing what he does best. It's far colder tonight, the moon is shining clear and full in the crystal autumn sky. We're all enjoying a wee dram of Dougie's latest offering, Caledonia 12 year old single malt whisky. Every now and then we hear a burst of uncontrollable laughter from the audience, and the humerous boom of Dougie's voice. The singing tonight has been wonderful!

Its now Day Four of the festival & things have settled down to being the proverbial well-oiled machine. In the beginning we were all together for the first time, wanting everything to go smoothly. The pressure was intense, but seeing as this is the fifth Perthshire Amber festival Dougie's wife Jenny & daughter Julia are masters at delegating & we all know our roles well.

The first order of business was that we were all fitted out with walkie talkies as we've been pretty spread out throughout the theatre. Communicating is much easier than running around relaying messages. Dougie has been obsessed with using these. They actually work in his
favour for two reasons, the first being that he can disappear into his campervan (AKA Bad Boy) to give his voice a much-needed rest & let the
support crew know where we can find him.

Secondly, well:*crackle* 'Dougie to Julia, Dougie to Julia, over'
*crackle* 'Dad, it's me, what is it?'
*crackle* 'I can't find my lighter. Does anyone have one? Over'
*crackle* 'You don't have to keep saying 'over', Dad. Look in your jacket pocket'
*crackle* 'Ok, got it *pause* Over.'

Fortunately this has only occurred twice, much to everyone's amusement! The performances have been utterly superb. Of course, Eddi Reader is a delightful class act. While introducing 'Ae Fond Kiss', she dedicated it to 'a very sad moment in our lives this year,' and the entire audience held their breath for a poignant moment. 'Yes,' she continued, 'I'm talking about the devastating breakup of Peter Andre & Jordan.' She then proceeded to sing so beautifully that one actually did feel for them, however briefly :)

Beoga blew the roof off the hall when they performed. Their energy & sense of fun, not to mention phenomenal musical ability was nothing
short of jaw dropping. This is definitely a band to watch, I've not seen anything like these guys since Lunasa. Catch them if you can! A couple of times during the festival Paul, Bridge, Mannie & I have had 'what are we DOING here?' moments. The cameraderie and sense of being a part if something special is absolutely fantastic & we're loving every minute of it :)

Tomorrow will be a cracking night as Mike McGoldrick, John Joe Kelly & Ed Boyd (from Flook fame) will perform at Dunkeld Cathedral. I'm a
huge fan of all of their music and just can't wait to catch this set! In the meantime, I plan on sitting in front of this divine fireplace sampling Dougie's Caledonia whisky. All in the name of stringent taste testing of course ...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Perthshire Amber 1

Eddi Reader is on stage, all flying hands, that incredible voice, fey, singing purely in the moment. I'm standing stage left, behind the biggest most advanced mixing desk I've ever seen (and that's just the foldback). All this stuff was on the back of a truck less than 10 hours ago. It's been a non-stop first day, from an empty theatre to setting up 2 stages (one that seats 500 in the theatre proper, another smaller stage for the open mic sessions and some smaller gigs (still a set up larger than the average Sunas rig), a vast merchandising table (Dougie has a lot of stuff to sell) and even a small pub in one of the back halls for the neverending session. It's an odd feeling standing here. I could hear a lot better out the front, but there's something about being back stage, watching Eddi and her band and seeing the rapt expressions on the audience's faces. She really does spin magic when she sings. It's breathtaking, kooky, almost difficult to watch except for the little voice in your head that tells you not to turn away, you're watching something rare.

The past couple of days we've been down at Butterstone, preparing merch, sorting instruments, drinking tea and generally weaving our way around the chaos that is the MacLean house. I'm not sure that I've actually explained wee part of us being here. Dougie invited us over to perform, but then sometime later Jenny floated the idea of us joining the small volunteer crew. We jumped at the idea because it means we get to see the runnings of a festival from start to finish and it has the brilliant bonus of having two weeks’ accommodation in a five star lodge in Scotland and getting to hang with the most amazing people. The Festival support staff run to about fourteen I think, and most of us are either family, friends or other performers. The depth and breadth to this is just staggering -it runs for 10 days, with concerts every night, workshops and smaller gigs during the day, a session bar, and that’s just the stuff people see. What you don’t is the staggering amount of technology powering this. The entire festival is being streamed online, and pretty much everything else is available on demand. There are high-definition video cameras in the auditorium, portable handy-cams roaming around, all feeding into a control centre where it is cut together on a barrage of iMacs then sent out into the ether. Dougie’s son Jamie is the mastermind of it all, and so far it’s working incredibly. The stream quality is just amazing (depending on your own access though I guess). Then there are a few digital cameras floating around (including myself) and Ian on the proper photography. A lot of the shots are quickly editing then uploaded to the huge plasma screen in the main foyer -sometimes before the acts being photographed have even finished playing. This all adds the the great sense of immediacy and likeness of the show. Jenny and Julia (Dougie’s daughter) pretty much run the front of house, with Jamie and the incredible soundcrew running the tech. Of course this is in addition to Dougie himself, who is always hurrying around, still one of the most enthusiastic and boyish people I’ve ever met (and someone who has no problems getting on the two-way radio system to announce he’s lost his cigarettes).

The blogs might slow down a little over the next few days, because we no longer have broadband connection where we’re staying, so I have to write them nestled in a corner of the theatre. The hardest this is there’s just so much to tell!

Tomorrow sees us play our first gig, just a wee thing, but it’ll be fun and I’m pretty sure it’ll be live to radio. I think we’re recording some video for the web too, outside on the banks of the churning River Tay, so check at the website address below if you’re interested in streaming.

Right, back to Eddi Reader for me.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


We found The Old School House easily enough as there are only about 8 houses in Butterstone. What took longer was finding the front door in the darkness. We knocked, not quite knowing what to expect, and after a pregnant pause, the door flew open and a frock coat-clad gentleman flew out shouting 'you made it you made it you made it!". It was quite possibly the most surreal and brilliant moment of the tour so far. Dougie was all done up posh as he'd only just come in from a meeting, and as he hurried about making us tea and coffee, we said hello again to Jenny, and met Jane, Jamie, Julia and Ross amid the riot of festival paperwork confusion around the main table. It was a wonderful welcome, and made us poor sickening people feel a whole lot better.

The house is just incredible. It's an old schoolhouse that they've extended over the years (it's actually the school that both Dougie and his father attended, so there's an incredible sense of place here), so the rooms are fascinating. It's a warm rabbit warren of wood, narrow corridors, a full recording studio (inside the old church), cosy nook and Dougie's shed where he 'makes stuff'. Books, portraits, Jenny's beautiful art, old posters, instruments, Apple Macs... But most of all it feels incredibly homely.

Of course within ten minutes Dougie and I were geeking out over iPhone apps and recording software (the iPhone definitely seems to be the gadget of choice among musicians), but generally we were just catching up, and filling the others in on some of the exploits from the tour.

Jenny and Jane drove us off to where we'll be staying for the next two weeks, Atholl Palace in one of the art deco lodges. It's stunning; a beautiful old house originally built to house the chauffeurs in the 1930's but then restored in 2005 for accommodation. We are being spoilt! There's ancient woodland on the estate that I plan to walk around early in the morning, complete with deer, native red squirrels and pine martens.

Inverness to Findhorn

Today started badly.

Bridget has been coughing a fair bit, and it’s been getting gradually worse, so when we got the message from her room this morning that she was really unwell, we rushed her straight off to a doctor (as an aside, thank feck for free healthcare in the UK and also Google, for finding the medical centre nearest to us -a phonebook doesn’t really work when you don’t know the suburbs around you). Turns out she has a virusy thing and is on antibiotics (and before the comments and emails start flying, we all know that antibiotics are only good for bacterial things. We think it’s to avoid a chest infection).

So, dosed up, we headed off towards Cawdor, only to find the castle closed for the season. Most things here seem to close this time of year. Make sense when you see how bleak it can be. There wasn’t much else to do other than admire the wee little village, so Sarah’s hunt for the Clan has stalled, albeit temporarily.

Early afternoon found us at the Findhorn Foundation, an incredible spiritual ‘eco’ community on Findhorn Bay. I’ve had an odd little obsession/pulling towards this place for nearly fifteen years, after I read ‘Flight into Freedom‘ by its co-founder, Eileen Caddy. It’s also been mentioned by the likes of Liam O’Manolai and Mike Scott of the Waterboys (who has a home here) both of whom I hold in very high musical regard. Providence was shining on us, as I was not sure I was going to make it all this way, only to be stopped literally miles away. I couldn’t very well leave Bridget in the car while I looked around (Findhorn offer tours, classes, and stays varying from a day to a week to 6 months to a lifetime. It’s an amazing place, mostly self-sufficient -it even has wind turbines and a state of the art water filtration system), but mainly, it’s about self-awareness, and the quest for it. I can’t really go into too much detail here, as there’s, well, too much detail.

One of the amazing hand-built homes on the Field of Dreams

When I said providence was shining, I meant because while we were in the Blue Angel cafe I spotted a sign for a healer /masseuse. Most of you know that Bridget has a bad shoulder, and needs regular work, so she made the call and found out he was 5 minutes away and did 2 hour sessions -exactly the length of the tour. So she went off and did that while Sarah and I were taken around Findhorn by the lovely Leanne. It’s a stunning place, most of it hand-built. The focus is on Common Community, shared responsibility and tolerance and respect. Nothing is taken for granted. There are potteries, a state of the art printing house (using world-class standards in recycling and acid-free inks), performance spaces, galleries, permanent housing, nurseries, and the incredible Universal Hall, easily the most incredible and inspirational venues I’ve ever been in.

The front entrance of Universal Hall. Shame the picture does no justice to the stained glass

It’s a hand-built, limestone walled, turf-roofed hexagon with amazing acoustics and that truly breath-taking feel of something made with love. We missed out on a gig here by only a little bit (date clashes) but upcoming artists include Shooglenifty and Malinky, and the Waterboys have recorded two albums here (I don’t think I mentioned it’s a multi-level centre with a top notch recording studio and even a meditative sanctuary under the floor of the hall, with its ceiling holding a frosted skylight into the amphitheater. Words can’t describe it really.

The carved whole tree trunk is the centerpiece of the stage. See the little hexagonal 'skylight' to the sanctuary below!

Sarah’s favourite place was a small drystone building called the Hobbit House, which was also hand-built, and inside contains a single circular room, used for meditation and also for singing. Of course Sarah was invited to try it out, which she did with a verse from ‘Sorrow’s Away’. The acoustics were perfect, and her voice came back to her tenfold.

The Hobbit House.

It’s an incredible place, not affiliated with any religion except your own personal oneness, and how you use it to better the planet. I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll return here. My fifteen-year curiosity has been quelled, but more doors have opened.

From there, we shot south into the gloaming evening, across the Cairngorm National Park on our way to Dunkeld. With the clocks going back an hour, darkness seemed to fall even quicker, but there was one incredible moment when I looked over and saw a buck deer running through the woods next to the road, parallel with the car for a time before fading back into the dark. The Cairngorms are incredibly bleak, possibly some of the harshest Scottish terrain short of the Hebrides, but I’d cut things a little too fine for sight-seeing, so mostly, we travelled the winding roads with just the snow markers and the occasional croft for company. It was probably the hardest drive of the trip so far. The big Jaguar stuck to the road like its namesake, but it’s pretty heavy (with all our gear) and the road dipped, crested, swung and jigged like a mad thing. Add to this the constant scanning of the distance for eye shine that might mean a deer, a sheep, or, gods forbid, a giant Angus cow, and you have a knackering few hours. It was fun though, like my own wee episode of Top Gear, with only one really hairy moment when I misjudged a switch-back turn and poor Bridget got covered in schnacks from a toppled bag.

But eventually we wandered down out of the moors. The featureless grey to either side of the car was replaced by a tunnel of burnished copper beech trees that shivered leaves down on us. We found Dunkeld, then continued on the few more miles to Butterstone, and Dougie and Jennifer’s house.

And I’ll save that bit for tomorrow.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bridget's Edinburgh Fail

Hi all, hope you are enjoying Paul and Sairey’s blogs, they’re doing an amazing job. And from the non-mac member of the band, here is my Edinburgh experience. (Sorry about the time backtrack!)

Firstly, I missed breakfast. Fail one. Oops... but it was for a very good reason, sleep and phone calls home just seemed more important at the time. So eventually I wandered out of the room around 10.30ish and thought I would just pick a direction and start walking. Surely I would hit the town eventually. Well instead I hit a motorway... after about half an hour of walking... not exactly the start I’d planned but I was enjoyed the walk so wasn’t too worried. Fail two. After breaking my own pact and asking at a post office for directions, I walked back exactly the way I had come and turned down the other street to head towards town. 

I love looking at all the buildings and stopped endlessly to take photos (unfortunately which are stuck on my camera so you’ll just have to imagine it). After another half an hour or so I seemed to hit a town-like area and saw a street name that I recognised - Princes Street. So off I trotted in search of some good shopping (funnily enough Paul doesn’t care for waiting around while I try on clothes so I thought my solo mission was the perfect shopping excuse). Except that I didn’t buy anything. Fail three.

Princes Street was a mess of roadworks, but after heading down the shop side and not finding much I decided to head for the park. That was beautiful and I had a lovely time strolling along, finding the odd monument or two, and in full view of the spectacular looking Edinburgh Castle. I could also see a beautiful bridge which i decided would be my next target... and finally a win, it lead to the Royal Mile. Woohoo!! More seriously old buildings, photos and some great kitch touristy shops. Oh and I wandered past about 5 be-kilted bagpipers on my travels, and always seemed to catch them playing Amazing Grace.

My next win, finding the MacIntosh jewellery store and my only purchase of the day, a beautiful ring. I have loved MacIntosh jewellery for years - he used to be an architect then turned his expertise to jewellery so it’s really unusual.

At this point I had been walking for about 4 hours. Remembering that I had not eaten breakfast, I thought that I would start to walk back in the direction of the hotel and pick up some food one the way. Fail four. I found myself standing under the bridge i needed to be on top of, with a giant stair mountain laughing at me as the only way to the top.

Back over the bridge, a brief pause for another phone call to Tom, telling him that I could see no less than 4 clock towers from where I was sitting. Then miraculously found Leith Walk again which would take me back towards the hotel. Or so I thought. What had been a  30 minute walk in, ended up taking close to 2 hours of me wandering in circles around the back streets of Edinburgh - cold, tired and still foodless (and might I add in fairly severe need of a loo!). Fail five!! I finally spotted the park that I thought was in front of the hotel, and wandered down a little alley way. I then discovered how big the park was, and how many navy blue cars seemed to be on the outskirts. I finally made it back to my room, kicked my shoes off, only to discover that my entire little toe had become a giant red blister. Fail six!! The sight of it earned a half disgusted/half impressed ‘OH MY GOD’ from Sarah and some good hikers advice from Paul.

So that was my day in Edinburgh. It looked up immediately after that with a gig and meeting up with Bec so don’t worry!!

Until next time... 

Inverness and Monster Scones!

Just a short one tonight.

After a mammoth Scottish breakfast (like an English breakfast but with haggis etc) we said our goodbyes and headed north at a nice gentle pace. We popped in to have a look at Invarary Castle, which was pretty impressive, then we hit the road proper. It's been tipping it down through the night, and the roads were pretty flooded in places. Nothing the sturdy-footed Mick couldn't handle with aplomb. We stopped back in Fort William for more monster scones and the best coffee in the Highlands.

Monster Scones!

From Fort William, we followed the road up through Fort Augusta, and along Loch Ness. When the rain cleared, it was amazing, with mist clinging to the hills like cotton. The mountains became striped with dozens of temporary waterfalls, and look like huge rocks shot through with glistening quartz veins. Some of the larger waterfalls look like giant mare's tails that fan out in the breeze before smashing down over black rocks and disappearing beneath browning bracken and heather. I loved it, though the girls were a bit cold.

We stopped at Urquhart Castle, but it was just too wet to go anywhere, as a lot of it is outdoors. Loch Ness is just vast, and despite the crapness of the visitor centre it's really a fitting heart to Scotland.

We hit Inverness in the afternoon, promptly found some accommodation (we splashed out on a Travelodge) and a local curry house. Stuffed ourselves silly on awesome massala (sic) and korma, and are most likely all going to be asleep before 8pm.

Rock and roll!

Tomorrow we continue the quest to Cawdor, looking for Sarah's clan, then I finally get to visit the Findhorn Community, a place that has fascinated me for over 10 years.

And tomorrow night we arrive in Butterstone, Dougie and Jennifer's home, and the fun (and drinking) really begins

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties

It's about 1am. I'm sitting here on a very comfy bed in the servant's quarters of the George Hotel in Invarary. It's a full-service pub/hotel, and it has quite a large live-in staff. The rooms are just spectacular, and although where we're staying is pretty austere, it's warm, cosy and clean, and as a muso, one can't ask for much more. It's closing time, and I can hear merry drunk people with thick Scots accents staggering out in the street. One guy just yelled out "Hey! I jus fart-ted!' in an absolute perfect Big Yin voice. The split in the word is intentional, as you can tell if you say it out loud like Billy Connolly.

Tonight's dinner was a pie made of Angus beef braised in local ale, with tatties and neeps. Sarah devoured smoked haddock (smoked about 70 metres from here by an old man who's family have smoked fish for generations and uses smouldering old oak whisky barrels or, if he's feeling saucy and wants more interestingly-flavoured fish, port or sherry barrels). Needless to say, it tasted spectacular. Bridge schnozzled into a tagliatelle made with about 5 different kinds of local fish, finished in a crayfish sauce. The food on this trip has been just incredible. I'm not sure we'd ever tire of the endless variations of fish and chips (haddock, pollack, cod, plaice, sole... all battered to some secret family recipe using the local grog and served with proper chips -new potatoes if we're lucky. But it's the other meals that are stunning us. Haggis, neeps (turnips -it makes sense if you say the word), thick, glorious butter, clotted cream, organic breads, duck, venison...oh the venison... even wild boar sausages (tasted like very heavy bacon), Scottish smoked salmon, Mull and Orkney Cheddars, and beautiful asparagus. I could be a cook here I think. Most places seem to source their food locally, and because of that the menus change daily. Then there the sweets. Scottish fudge (called tablet) is crumbly and just dissolves on the tongue, but like Lembas bread, only fat hobbits and Celtic musos can eat more than one. Hazelnut pavlova, sticky toffee pudding in fudge and chocolate reduction, local ice cream (including one called caramelitta which is to die for) and apple pies....

Now I'm sitting here hungry, and all we have in the room are the schnack bags full of crap. We have to stop eating the crap.

The food distracted me. I originally here to write a quiet blog about tonight's gig while the girls got ready for bed. Last night was great. The pub was choccas and there was a wonderful group in for a pre-wedding night out. There was much dancing and carrying on, and I think finally all our fears of selling snow to the Eskimos have been dispelled. We have been welcomed here beyond belief, and though Scotland is in the grip of a huge resurgence in traditional instrumental geniuses, to have such reassuring things said to us by the likes of the Peatbog Faeries, who are icons here, is just well, quite humbling.

Tonight, we were told, would be a little different, as later on the local shinty trams would arrive. We paced ourselves, saving a good stock of our fast stuff for later, and lucky we did. Tonight was frenetic, mad, loud, hot (poor Sarah had to stand basically next to a roaring fire) and essentially Scottish; great heart and warm humour. We played our arses off, and they danced theirs away. It was triffic. We met some great people, Fiona, Chris and Wendy that Bridge hasn't seen since she was four, and Russell, the philosopher who was one of the most enthusiastic people I've met for a long time. You got me thinking, sir!

So now we're buggered. Bridge is laying in bed reading Pullman's The Subtle Knife, Sarah is nose-deep in a book on Scottish Myths & Legends (after devouring her book on Mary Queen of Scots this afternoon), and I'm about to get back to my Journal of Tibet. All I can hear is the gentle trickle of the rain (which has really settled in now), the tap tap of the MacBook keys and occasionally, a distant seagull. This place it very settling.

So, tomorrow. We have a day off! Or at least, a day where we don't need to get to a gig. So in true Súnas fashion, rather than just take it easy and pootle around Argyll, we're hopping into Mick Jaguar and taking off for Inverness, via Loch Ness, which we all want to see (and Urquhart castle). A nice 5 hour drive. There, we're going to head to Cawdor, land of the dread MacBeth to track down some of Sarah's clan. She's a Cawdor Campbell (not the tricksy Glen Coe ones!).

Oh, and the clocks get wound back an hour here tonight, which means and EXTRA HOUR IN BED! These things are important. We missed the hotel breakfast yesterday as we had our first lie-in of the Scottish part, and we're determined not to tomorrow. Food!!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Scottish Tales

Right, time to catch up. I'm sitting by myself in a deserted pub in Invarary, and pint of Black and Tan next to me (Scottish Guinness, only not so heavy) and rain on the window. I have an hour or so before the dinner crowds start rolling in. Time to bring the blog up to date I think! We've been a bit hampered by the lack of internet connections in the wilder parts.

We arrived in Edinburgh at about 7pm, and by 9 we were showered, changed and playing in a session with Angus Grant an Luke Plumb from Shooglenifty. It was one of those wonderful coincidences. The magnificent carmen told us that Luke (a Tasmanian mandolin genius whom we often bump into around the festival traps) usually did a session on the night we were arriving. We nearly didn't go. It was a long drive up and by the time we'd lugged the gear up tow flights of stairs (none of the older, smaller hotels here have lifts) we were about ready to go to bed. Luckily, we decided to go for a wee drive as the folk club were were performing at the following night was just around the corner. The bar looked deserted, so while I drove around the block looking for a park, the girls nipped in to see if there was anything happening and bumped right into Angus. It was a great session, nice and laid back, with lots of really interesting tunes that we tried to soak up. We're going to see if we can hook up with them again on the way back.

The Session at The Reverie with the Shoogles

The next day was spent wandering the streets of Edinburgh, then that night we played a lovely spot at the Edinburgh Folk club, supporting the great Rab Noakes.

Edinburgh in Autumn is just beautiful

We finally got to meet up with Queensland songwriter Bec Wright, who made the train trip from Glasgow just to come and say hi. Funny how we've never met properly until now, considering how many mutual friends we have.

Edinburgh Folk Club

It's a lovely little specifically-designed venue inside Edinburgh University, with great sound and extremely attentive people. It's the kind of place that Brisbane is sorely in need of. We've been invited back during our next trip, so the night was a great success.

From Edinburgh we hit the road to Skye. A beautiful 7-hour drive that took us through Glencoe, Fort William and across the bridge to Skye. It took us nearer to 10 hours as we had to keep stopping for photos!


We also passed the stunning Eilean Donan castle on Loch Duich, which was the location for parts of Highlander (although he calls it Glenfinnan on the shore of Loch Sheil. Fail). It's shame the tide was out, but the sun was setting so it was majestic.

Eilean Donan Castle

From there we pushed through to Skye, and the utterly stunning drive up to Dunvegan. The Cullain mountains (named for Irish myth-hero Cuchullain) were just breath taking. We've been truly blessed with weather so far, and even up on Skye we had blue skies.

So, Skye. We were here for a monster session with local band the Peatbog Faeries, and once again, by the time we'd settled into the beautiful Dunvegan hotel, we were knackered. We met up with John, the manager, who is the brother of a friend of ours back in Brisbane, and he set us up with great food and drink. Sleepies beckoned, but of course the tunes had other ideas, and we were jamming away until the wee hours. The whisky flowed (the local Talisker, of which I am a huge fan), the cider was there and a gallon of Guinness was drunk, as Peter, Ian, Seamus don't do anything by halves. It was easily the fastest, most rampaging session I've played. It was also the best fun. Even the border collie that chased the bar mats was mental. Nothing was done slowly, and it was simply fantastic. Thanks so much guys, hopefully our paths will cross again soon.

Even with the shadow of a sore head, I got up early so I could wander around the shores of Loch Dunvegan. The stillness is just incredible, as was the urge to go climbing. Alas I think I'm about 6 months of exercise and diet before being anywhere close to being mountain fit again.

We had breakfast in Portree, which is a wonderful small town on Skye. The weather was still perfect, and after some very strong organic coffee, we drove back across the bridge, stopping for a moment to visit Plockton, the village used in the TV series, Hamish MacBeth

Plockton, ala Loch Dubh. No sign of Hamish or Wee Jock

It's been about a decade since the show was filmed there, but landmarks like the building used for Barney's Pub and the police station are still recognisable.

So, tonight we play the second of our two gigs here in Invarary, in beautiful Argyll. Last night was fantastic. Lots of dancing and incredible Scottish hospitality. Apparently tonight there will be a few shinty teams in (Scottish hurling) so things might get fun!