Tannahill Weavers,
Swallow Hill Music Hall, Denver, Colorado
(23 September 1999)

"We were wandering around incognito before the show," said Roy Gullane, one of the founding members of the Tannahill Weavers. "We overheard so many of you saying, 'I do hope these Tannahill boys will ask us to sing along this evening.'" With that comment, he grinned and taught us the chorus to "The Final Trawl." "Fantastic! And so far from the ocean!" he exclaimed as we sang back the sea-faring lyrics. "There's only one rule here," he added. "Sing loud. Throw your heads back -- treat it as therapy!"

Perhaps it's that good-natured attitude that has kept Scotland's Tannahill Weavers performing in one incarnation or the other for the past thirty years. The band's current line-up -- Gullane on vocals and guitars; Phil Smillie (also a founding member) on flute, whistles, bodhran and guitar; Les Wilson on bouzouki, guitar, keyboards and vocals; John Martin on fiddle and vocals; and Duncan J. Nicholson on bagpipes and whistles -- blend together as one unit with one instrument rarely outweighing the others. (Although there was one point when the keyboards seemed superfluous, the flute amazingly held its own against the bagpipes.) Gullane's guitar and Wilson's bouzouki, however, generally formed a constant rhythm, Gullane particularly seeming to lead and change the pace, particularly on songs such as "Interceltic Set."

It truly was fascinating to watch each musician in turn -- the nods, the smiles, the feet tapping, the almost-dancing while playing, and even the poor piper trying to avoid oxygen deprivation. I must credit Nicholson for never losing his exuberance nor the beat as he strained to keep the bag filled with air in the Mile High City, a challenge to any and all pipers.

I wasn't only impressed with Nicholson, though. I was thinking that there was too much of Wilson's synthesizer against the flute towards the end of "Farewell to Finuary" when my ears distinguished another sound. Gullane had picked up a bow and was using it on the neck of the guitar. His left hand still fingered frets, but his right moved the bow carefully over the low-E string to create a string bass-like note.

Along with unusual instrumentation, we were treated to bits and pieces of Scottish history. The band was "born" in Paisley, Scotland, and was named for both poet Robert Tannahill ("Scotland's other poet," Gullane clarified) and the town's weaving industry. Tannahill's song "The Braes O'Gleniffer" led Wilson into a prologue that covered Tannahill's suicide and a guided tour of the area around Paisley. "If you're ever in Paisley on holiday," he began, then stopped to amend his thought. "Well, if you're ever in Paisley on holiday, you're in the wrong place." No matter. Wilson gave us directions from Paisley to the valley so that we too could see the braes.

We also learned about the 1715 Jacobite rebellion and that Jacobites were not a crunchy cat food prior to "The Atholl Gathering." More history came in terms of the 1744 battle in which the Scots defeated the English, a feat which, according to Gullane, did not happen as often as Hollywood might claim. Feared transports to places such as Virginia, Bermuda and Australia were discussed before "Jamie Raeburn's Farewell to Glasgow." Despite Bermuda's island charms, the truth, as Gullane explained, was that "you had to leave your family behind forever," and that sadness indeed is apparent in the song.

Songs from the Western Islands, or the Hebrides, also were featured, such as "Farewell to Finuary," a song of leaving. Finuary, a small village on the western coast near the Island of Mull, gave Gullane an opening to tell an absolutely corny joke that he had learned there. "I couldn't resist," he claimed, with a grin. "Joy of My Heart," in which the tin whistle stood out at the opening, was a tribute to Mull. The vocals initially seemed weak against the whistle, but they picked up as the song continued.

"Interceltic Set" allowed the band to leave Scotland briefly to make a "musical voyage around Celtic countries." It started in Brittany and ended in Western Scotland. The flute and fiddle gave the Breton section a gentle start, as the guitar and bouzouki gradually joined in on the rhythm. The pipes seemed almost intrusive after that intimate opening, but the flute and fiddle held on; the pipes did not swallow them.

Although the band's sense of humor has surely kept them going for thirty years (demonstrated again when Gullane urged us to shop early for Christmas at the CD table -- "And let's face it: What finer gift can you give than the gift of bagpipe music?") and had his Denver audience in stitches, the band's strong musicianship surely has been responsible for the longevity. All five men are highly skilled players who clearly love what they are doing. With any luck, the Weavers will continue to please audiences for years to come. As Gullane said before the band launched into their final song, a set of "merry melodies and dance tunes," "I don't suppose we'll see you again (dramatic pause) in this millennium, but (with gleam in eye), we'll be back to get you in the next!" The Denver audience cheered and grinned, as hands clapped and feet tapped.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]