The 30 years Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham have played together have been a blast. And the gig to mark the anniversary will be too
“The older we get the better we used to be.” Ever the ones for a witty conundrum, Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham assure me this is their current motto, having told Jackie Bird the same thing during the recent BBC Hogmanay Live show, an institution which, without the presence of the irrepressible fiddle and accordion duo, would be akin to Christmas without Santa Claus.
Either individually or more usually as a duo, “Aly and Phil” have played a TV Hogmanay show of some description every year over the past four decades, in Bain’s case since 1972. Now, however, they’re embarking on festivities of a different kind to celebrate what they’re calling “Le Grand Anniversaire”, as 2016 sees 30 years of touring and recording together as a duo, as well as Bain’s 70th birthday on 15 May – the same date that Cunningham marks the 40th anniversary of his first fully professional gig as a musician.
The celebrations kick off with a Celtic Connections concert in Glasgow City Halls on Wednesday , which should see the pair dispense jig ‘n’ reel fireworks, sublime airs and scurrilous banter in the company of guests reflecting longstanding musical camaraderie on both sides of the Atlantic and North Sea. Among them will be Cajun stars Michael Doucet and Ann and Marc Savoy, Parisian accordionist Marcel Azzola, Bengan Janson and Per Gudmundson from Sweden and an old Shetland pal, pianist Violet Tulloch. Surprise guests are promised. The year will continue with Scottish tours in May, August and September, an English foray in April, and a new album.
We meet in the quiet back room of a bar near Bain’s Edinburgh home, and there’s a fair bit of reminiscence in the air, prompted by the sad passing at the end of December of Andy M Stewart, Phil’s former bandmate in the near-legendary Silly Wizard. They’re discussing playing at his funeral and the conversation turns to the various notables at whose obsequies they have played – to such an extent, says Phil, that they became known as “the Men in Black”.
As ever, though, a typical Aly and Phil yarn emerges, about crossing from St Giles to Edinburgh City Chambers for the reception following the funeral of the former foreign secretary Robin Cook, “and this very distinguished gentleman fell in beside us and asked: ‘Who will play at your funerals?’ Aly asked him what he did and he says, ‘I’m the Danish Prime Minister.’”
“He loved Scotch pies,” Bain chimes in.
Cunningham, now 55, was still at primary school in 1968, when a young Shetland fiddle virtuoso and disenchanted time-served joiner arrived in Glasgow, bearing only his fiddle case with a large, freshly caught salmon tied to it. After failing an audition for The Lex McLean Show – fortuitously, he reckons in hindsight, Bain was taken under the wing of BBC producer and traditional music champion Arthur Argo and things really took off when he formed a duo with the Borders bluesman Mike Whellans.
“It was hard at the beginning,” he recalls, “but after Mike and I got going we were doing a lot of work in England especially, then we went to America in 1970 and that opened up a whole new area for the Boys of the Lough, who had formed, so I went back with them.”
That early Bain-Whellans duo, however, was something of an inspiration for the young Cunningham. “My Dad let me stay up one night and it was Mike and Aly, who were on the telly once a week at that time. That was the first time I ever encountered Aly.”
Cunningham left school at 15 and, already an extraordinarily gifted accordionist, joined his late fiddler brother, Johnny, in the ranks of Silly Wizard. His first official gig in the band (there were previous clandestine occasions when the Wizard van would pick him up and deposit him at Portobello High School gates before and after gigs) was at Haddington Corn Exchange on 15 May, 1976.
Both musicians have done much to raise the profile of traditional music. Bain has hosted such ground-breaking TV documentaries as Down Home, Aly Meets the Cajuns and the hugely successful Transatlantic Sessions. Since his Silly Wizard days, Phil has followed suit with TV and radio series, has composed prolifically and been musical director for such illustrious theatrical productions as Bill Bryden’s The Ship. Both can boast MBEs and honorary doctorates, to which Cunningham can add the title of Professor, as artistic director of traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
The pair knew each other well musically and socially long before they toured together, but the first time they got together on stage was at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, when Aly’s accompanist couldn’t make it and Phil stepped in. As a consequence, Bain invited the youngster to join him in an early TV series he was working on. Prompted by public response, the pair took to the road together in 1986.
Since then, they’ve created much fine music and not a little mayhem in venues ranging from concert auditoria to village halls where the “footlights” were borrowed table lamps. Accordingly, as Phil explains, they’re hoping that May’s anniversary tour will feature “the kind of wee-er gigs that supported us in our early days.”
It took the pair two or three years to fully co-ordinate their playing styles, but these days, says Bain, “it’s like telepathy. I can even tell by the way [Phil] moves his body what he’s going to do next.”
Does the world’s best-known Shetland fiddler ever feel like hanging up his bow? “I’m not working as hard as I used to,” says Bain, “and I don’t get involved in as many projects, but I’d like to do maybe another project or two.
“The only advantage of being 70 will be that I probably won’t have to buy another washing machine,” he adds, grinning, “but I’ve had an absolutely fantastic life and made great friends and great music. It’s been an absolute roller-coaster.”
• Aly & Phil’s “Le Grand Anniversaire” is at Glasgow City Halls on 20 January. Both appear in the Transatlantic Sessions concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 29 and 31 January, www.celticconnections.com