Tannahill Weavers show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

submitted by Susan Budig

I feel as though I’ve lived the last forty years of my life
wearing static-playing earphones embedded into my ears. This year of 2003 has
opened up for me musically in ways I’d never imagined. I’ve gotten rid of the
earphones! The
Tannahill Weavers
  who performed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin October 18th
proved to be a most amazing splash of color on my audio palette.

 I’d first heard of the Tannies while searching through
Celtic music at the public library. On a CD, they were one band in a collection
of other Celtic musicians. When I listened, they stood out, holding me in a
trance. I immediately ran to buy their latest CD and then shot a fan-mail e-mail
to Roy Gullane, the lead vocalist. When the opportunity to see them perform
arose, I jumped at the chance. Their show was held at the
Irish Cultural and Heritage Center,
a converted Congregational Church. It seats over 1000 people and while spare in
design, it is vibrant in acoustic sense. Along with 450 others, several of the
men in kilts and full Scottish dress, I sat in the Hallamór waiting with
anticipation. We begin our evening listening to an instrumental, which segued
into a four part harmony, “Braes O’ Mar.”While I suppose the band has heard Roy regale the audience with
these same stories throughout most of the tour, we had not heard them and found
Roy’s thick Scottish brogue a delightful complement to the humorous quips and
intros he provided before most of the numbers. His banter led us laughing into
“Plooboy Laddies,” a sing-a-long. Much of the Tannies music is traditional, the
next song, “Athol Gathering” originated around 1750, but in no way does it sound
dated. Some of the instruments used, such as Collin Melville’s bagpipes and John
Martin’s fiddle are essentially the same as when these tunes were first
performed. Other instruments like Les Wilson’s keyboard and Roy’s acoustic
guitar bring a bit of modern sound to the tunes.

I note that the band sounds a bit tired up to this point, but in
the next song, another instrumental, they seem to hit their groove. John starts
with a solo on his viola with Les softly backing up on keyboard. Then Phil jumps
in with a tripping air on his flute. And the show really heats up with all the
musicians playing and Phil ending the number demonstrating his deep skill on the
bodhrán. Roy later tells me that they had been having trouble with the
soundboard and it wasn’t cleared up until the fifth song. That would explain why
I felt their fifth song was the first that felt truly inspired. “Jamie Raeburn’s
Farewell” is one that stays with me. The song has many moments of warm, buzzing
harmonies. Les arranges the vocals and he outdoes himself with the next song,
“Carls O’ Dysart.” Very clever and surprising.

 Their latest CD, Arnish Light, released
mid-September of this year includes “Cam’ Ye By Athol.” The vocals are very
polished as one might expect after dozens of years of singing together. John’s
adroit fiddle playing on this number with his supporting sound is quite
pleasing. Generally, though, it’s hard to hear the fiddle, which is a shame.
John has amazing fingers and an intuitive touch. I really enjoyed his few solos.
During their next medley, “Turf Rog Selection,” I notice Collin running around,
strapping on a belt with bellows attached to his waist, then removing it and
picking up whistles and then pipes, all the while sitting down and standing up,
making me wonder how he keeps track of his next step. He confides to me later,
that there have been times when the other band members are looking at him and he
realizes that he’s late with his next instrument and caught wondering what it is
that he’s suppose to be playing. Collin is a big guy. Those whistles are tiny. I
mentally compare him to some bulky football player sitting in a rocking chair,
knitting an afghan. It’s got a bit of visual humor, but Collin is quite serious
about his playing, not to mention fantastic!

We break for intermission and Roy hustles over to the soundboard
for more adjustments. When the show resumes, I find the music so much enlivened,
I can hardly take notes. Roy says to me after the show that there continued to
be a bit of trouble with the sound, but it was fixed during the break. The
result of that fine-tuning is a show so energetic that most of us can’t sit
still. The kilt wearing men, in fact, go to the front side of the stage and
dance their Scottish jigs. Maybe some of these dancers are emboldened by the
alcohol served in the adjacent bar?

“Arnish Light Selection,” “The Ewie With The Crooked Horn,” and
“Helen of Kirkconnel Lee” are played, with Les telling us the details of poor
Helen and singing the lead for that song. The harmonies are superb and Les’
singing is soulful and heart-rending. Phil ends this tune with a rousing run on
the bodhrán. After lilting instrumentals, we hear a battle song, “Tranent Muir.”
This inspiring piece moves the listener, transporting her to a far away hill,
watching the fighting with fear and awe.

Next, “Farewell To Fiunary” is performed. I later confess to Roy
that it was this exact song, heard on The Best of the Tannahill Weavers
1979-1989, that sent me into a swoon over Roy’s engaging Scottish voice. I’m
listening to it now, as I write this, smiling a goofy grin. The band plays
“Black Bird Set” with so much enthusiasm and energy that I am breathless at its
conclusion. The vocals are stunning. We then are treated to John and Phil
playing a duet that leaves me with an aching face from an overabundance of
smiling. When the band leaves the stage, our hands pound together until the
Tannies bounce back and enchant us with “The Gypsy Laddie” and the ever-animated
“Johnny Cope.” It is an evening infused with vigor and freshness.

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