TITLE: THE SPEYSIDE SESSIONS

ARTIST: ARTISTS FROM THE SCOTtish highlands

LABEL: Self Produced

RELEASE DATE: 2012

By Linda Dewar

Speyside_SessionsIn the Highlands of Scotland, the old Céilidh tradition is still very much alive and well. Most towns and villages have a somewhat flexible group of accomplished players and singers who get together regularly in a pub or someone’s home and make music until the sun comes up or the beer runs out. And whenever friends gather for any occasion it’s rightly assumed that music will happen at some point during the festivities.

Last winter a group of far-flung friends led by actor Kevin McKidd (Brave, Grey’s Anatomy, Rome, Trainspotting) and best friend James D. Reid got together to play some tunes and sing a few songs in a spacious house beside the river Spey (hence the name). Old friends and new were invited to play and sing, and at the end of a week they’d recorded over two dozen traditional Scottish folk songs.

In the group’s own words, “all the tracks were recorded...as live performances in singular continuous takes, so as to capture the mood of the moment and the spontaneous atmosphere of the sessions. The album is a love letter to Scotland...comprised of an intimate mix of traditional Scottish ballads, reels and bawdy crowd pleasers.”

There are plenty of reasons to like this CD, starting with the fact that all of the profits are going to the very worthwhile charity, Save the Children. Or the fact that it’s currently in the UK’s iTunes World Music top ten. There are some great tracks here.  They’ve chosen traditional songs and tunes that are familiar to most fanciers of Scottish music, but have wisely steered clear of the ones that have been sung or played too often.  And while their style is very traditional they’ve managed to make the material their own by incorporating some interesting interpretations.

Probably the most trad-sounding track on the album is Barnyards o’ Dalgaty. It’s been sung by the best of the bothy ballad singers—Joe Aitken, Jock Duncan and the like—and this version holds up well. Too often, these songs are made to sound “pretty” when they’re recorded, but Speyside Sessions have given us the real thing, with singers taking turns and a houseful of people joining in on the choruses.

The Scottish Bard, Robert Burns, is well represented, with four of his songs included. Of them, my choice would be The Lea Rig. The lyrics are meant to convey a sweet but coy expression of love with a twist of lust, and the singers have managed to capture this feeling very effectively.

There are two instrumentals, and I wish there were more. There’s some fine fiddling here, and again the choices of material are excellent. I’ve not encountered Diane of Pitgaveny before, and couldn’t find any references to it on the internet, but it’s a lovely slow air.

Kevin McKidd has a real gift for playing DADGAD guitar in the context of Scottish music, and he pairs it with a relaxed and mellow singing voice. His version of The Water is Wide is a track that will have you reaching for the “repeat” button. And I have to say this... of all the songs in the Scottish lexicon, one of my least favourites is These Are My Mountains, which always sounds to me like it should be played by a polka band. But McKidd’s version, with his guitar and vocal skills and the use of a different rhythm than we usually hear, is quite good- I listened to the whole thing and didn’t flinch once J.

What’s offered to us on The Speyside Sessions is a genuine example of the sort of trad and folk music that’s being played in houses and back rooms all over Scotland. It’s a reminder that the traditions are alive, thriving and continuing to evolve in a healthy and organic way. All that, and it’s also nice and easy to listen to, plus the profits go to charity—all good reasons to download it now.

An American now living in Scotland, Linda Dewar is a singer-songwriter and a player of various stringed and wind instruments. Besides being a solo performer, she is half of a duo with Scottish singer Douglas Craik, plays in an occasional ceilidh band, and is a founding member of the revue Simply Burns. Visit her website.