When you seem to be on a hectic rollercoaster of planning, recording and touring with one of the biggest bands on the international folk circuit, it’s no bad thing to draw breath and reconnect with the roots of your music. That at least is the gist of a recent blog by Calum MacCrimmon, one of two pipers in the award-winning Highland quintet Breabach.
The group are currently touring to promote their latest album, Frenzy of the Meeting, a jaunt which kicked off in St Ives, Cornwall, in September and is wending its high-powered way through the UK to finish in Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place on 1 December – not forgetting a wee detour to the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia early last month.
Perhaps they should have called the album Frenzy of the Tour Schedule; however, it’s a characteristically classy production, mixing fiery pipe-and-fiddle-led instrumentals with mellow interludes, including some thoughtful songs written by MacCrimmon and singer-guitarist Ewan Robertson.
Their last album, Astar, featured numerous guests, including friends made while touring in the Antipodes. This latest just features the quintet, with digital layering at times producing an almost orchestral sound, such as the string drift of Prince’s Strand. “Essentially we laid down the live tracks,” says MacCrimmon, “then we had a few days in the studio to get extra instruments down, with Megan Henderson sometimes doing three or four additional violin lines.”
Similarly the band’s bassist, James Lindsay, overlaid some sonorous bowed bass as well as discreet Moog synthesiser, as in the opening of the title track, a dramatic, fiddle-led treatment of an old piobaireachd fragment, with MacCrimmon singing cantaireachd, the traditional vocal method of transmitting piobaireachd.
And it was at least partly piobaireachd that prompted MacCrimmon to voice his thoughts in last month’s blog, “A Gathering Thought”. In September he and another piper, John Mulhearn, with whom he runs the Big Music Society which takes an innovative approach to the art of piobaireachd, organised a show in Stornoway as part of the Blas Highland Festival. Entitled Crossing the Minch, the event celebrated the music of the legendary Pipe Major Donald MacLeod and, as MacCrimmon relates, following a fairly intense period of writing, recording and touring with Breabach, it “kind of woke me up and subsequently reinvigorated me to delve deeper within myself musically”.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he tells me. “I think it was simply being in the company of good people that loved music.”
He laughs: “Of course you can argue that I’m always in that kind of company. But, in a nutshell it was the idea of a small group of like-minded people getting together not to play a concert so much as to just play music in each other’s company, doing what they love doing.”
There was a moment during the event when a senior piper, the well-respected John Wilson, shouldered his pipes for an informal rendition of Macleod’s piobaireachd Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute: “John’s piping in that unexpected moment took my breath away.”
No coincidence, then that the 36-year-old MacCrimmon is currently seeking further tuition in cantaireachd from elder exponents such as Wilson. And like other members of Breabach (fellow piper James Duncan Mackenzie and bassist James Lindsay have both produced albums over the past year or so), he keeps busy with other projects. Clearly, however, touching base has its benefits.
Shifting from pipes to strings, this month also sees the return of Edinburgh’s Scots Fiddle Festival, which runs from 16-18 November – a major showcase for the instrument. The opening concert features a specially commissioned, multi-media suite from composer Mike Vass, joined by fiddlers Patsy Reid, Jenna Reid and Lauren MacColl, while other guests over the weekend include Sarah-Jane Summers and Orcadian band Saltfish Forty and the Kinnaris Quintet reprising their recent debut album, Free One. - Jim Gilchrist
Frenzy of the Meeting is on Breabach Records. For tour details, see www.breabach.com
For more on the Scots Fiddle Festival, see www.scotsfiddlefestival.com