My last gig was at the summer fête at an old people’s home. Sure, it's not exactly hitting the big time. But, frankly, I'm not that great a guitarist, and the informal 'no-job-too-small' arrangement suits our recently-formed ceilidh band just fine. We quaffed tea and gave them the classics: ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’, ‘Turkey in the Straw’, ‘The Flowers of Edinburgh’. It was nice. Everyone was happy. No one was stressed.
That’s definitely not how I feel in rehearsal five minutes before This is Ceilidh begins. I’ve got a sheet of chords in front of me which are much fruitier, and change much faster, than the ones I’m used to strumming through. To my right, a bodhrán (a type of Irish drum) player is driving the beat forward. To my left, a brace each of fiddlers and pipers are ripping through the different tunes that make up the dance. I can barely keep up, and there’s not even anyone dancing yet. It’s all a little bit stressful.
Quite why, then, I agreed to play along with the band of This is Ceilidh for one night, is unclear. I’m not entirely sure my last outing prepared me for this. Firstly, there’s a difference of scale to contend with. Put simply, This is Ceilidh is the biggest ceilidh I’ve heard of, in a venue that holds up to 500. That’s a lot of feet galumphing through the Gay Gordons, expecting to be kept jauntily and tunefully in time. Secondly, there's a difference in standard. As Iain Gillie, producer and one of the creators of This is Ceilidh tells me, “you can’t do this with an average band” – and he’s not joking. A rolling roster of around 30 comprises some of the most highly-regarded traditional musicians right across the British Isles. Oh, and in the interests of participatory journalism: me.
A step backwards, for the benefit of those to whom “ceilidh” represents little beyond an unpronounceable word. A ceilidh—pronounced “KAY-lee”—is essentially a Scottish country dance. A band—usually a fiddle and an accordion, maybe a guitar—plays a “set” of tunes that correspond to a particular dance. Instructions are given; synchronised dancing commences. You’d be forgiven for thinking it all sounds a bit twee.
“If you look up ceilidh on YouTube, you’ll get videos of people in village halls, with the lights fully on, literally walking and counting along to an accordion or something,” the show’s director Owen Lewis tells me. “But that’s totally not what it is!” He’s right: there’s no experience quite like the anarchic, egalitarian joy of a set dance. You step and stamp to the rhythm; you whoop and clap; you swing a partner round and round and round as a room of sweaty, laughing revellers do exactly the same. Keep your wedding discos – it’s ceilidh all the way round these parts.
This is Ceilidh takes this a step further, providing what Gillie calls an “immersive theatrical experience”. Audiences are split into two “warring” clans, and cajoled through the dances by two hosts, who also deliver a bombastic and wonderfully flimsy narrative to string the dances together. There’s ballads, duelling pipers, a rapper doing Burns. There’s stag-horn hats and tartan tights (a top tip backstage from host Ewan Donald: tartan tights are comfiest when worn back-to-front. A sporran, though, is necessary for modesty). It’s utterly ridiculous, and it knows it. But it’s immensely fun and, in fact, keeps a steady stream of energy feeding the music and the dancing.
To return to which: I meet up with musical director Alex Silverman a few days before my cameo. If he’s worried about the mess I’m likely to make of his Scottish musical feast, he doesn’t let on. He’s very generous, and incredibly enthusiastic about a musical discipline to which he is relatively new. “Oh, the joy of this music! It’s got a life force in it which is completely irresistible!”
“It’s been an education for me, just what you can do with this music. The pipers are a case in point – the bagpipes are an instrument that can only play only nine notes. But the things these guys can do, it’s absolutely phenomenal.”
We’re soon joined by Andy Kain – one of This is Ceilidh’s fiddlers, and a musician who plays, by his reckoning, around 200 ceilidhs a year. It’s an extraordinary number, but a tally which has done nothing to decrease his enthusiasm. “I’m pinching a couple of the new tunes!” he laughs. For Scottish traditional music is anything but an art form standing still. There’s a massive and growing repertoire of tunes, with some of This is Ceilidh’s musicians involved in composition and performance on what Silverman calls “the lithe and exciting edge of the Scottish folk scene”.
One new tune, Silvermann explains, is a masterpiece of tension and release: “Most of 'Dirty Bee' is only three notes, and it’s bangin’! There’s this amazing build of tension and when it goes to the ‘B’ part - boom, it explodes”.
“It’s got such a brilliant groove,” adds Kain – using language one perhaps doesn’t expect to hear with regard to folk music. As an aside, Silverman and Kain discover in conversation that they have both received differing stories as to the inspiration of this particular tune: both involve a bee sting in an extremely sensitive area. Both are relatively unprintable.
We settle on a Highland barn dance for my cameo – three tunes with a quick marching rhythm. A couple of days later, Silverman sends me the musical notation and chords for me to “get them under my fingers”. After a few goes at fumbling through, I’m backstage, being helped into a very fetching kilt by the band. I’m becoming increasingly nervous.
“Don’t worry,” says Marianne Fraser, the guitarist who has allowed me to stand in for her tonight, as she gives me run-through before doors open. I watch as her fingers stretch easily to unfamiliar and inventive chord positions. “If you get stuck, just damp the chord and keep playing. No one will notice!”
A few dances in and it’s my turn to play. Marianne hands me her guitar, there’s four bars intro and we’re away. I genuinely don’t recall the last time I concentrated so hard. I glance up and see accordionist Grant McFarlane breezing effortlessly through ‘Donald McLean’s Farewell to Oban’ (seriously, all the names are brilliant). I miss the next chord and get my head back down into the music, experiencing a moment’s panic while I regain my place. “At the very end, we round off with a fat D major chord”, I remember Silverman telling me. When it comes, I’m relieved, and exhilarated. I leave the stage and get stuck into the dancing.
“Thank you so much. That was honestly the best night ever,” says a young Irishman to me as the cheers following the final dance subside.
Can I really take credit? Hell, why not. “It was my pleasure,” I say, and we hug sweatily.