Last weekend saw the fifth running of the Islay Sessions festival. This one was anticipated to be a particularly poignant one, as it was the first since Fraser Shaw (piper/whistle player/composer) passed away. Fraser was one of the main organisers of this new festival, being an Islay resident for the past number of years. He was always seen by all his friends, musicians and otherwise, as the “link to Islay”. Along with Grahame, Ciara and Andy, Fraser built this festival up from scratch and would have been very disappointed if it stopped in its tracks.
This year, it was decided to hold a special concert in his honour, alongside the usual activities over the weekend. With the eventual plan being to publish a book of Fraser’s compositions and record a CD, this weekend would be the starting point of the project. It was going to be a weekend of intensive rehearsals for the festival musicians, who are to be involved in the project. These musicians would be performing at both the Islay Sessions concert, and as part of a big evening also showcasing local Islay and Jura talent at Celtic Connections in January.
Musicians playing the Islay Sessions this year were all close friends of Fraser; Lori Watson, Adam Sutherland, Duncan Lyall, Laura-Beth Salter, Eilidh Shaw, Ross Martin, Angus MacKenzie, John Somerville, Innes Watson, Kevin O’Neill, Tina Jordan Rees and Gráinne Brady. Also on the bill was Maeve MacKinnon (Gaelic song) and Deoch ‘n’ Doras who played the ceilidh Saturday night after the concert.
The plan for the usual Saturday night concert was for four smaller groups to perform separately throughout the concert, and then for all musicians to join up at the end for a few sets. The groups were G&T, Adam & LB, Eilidh, Ross & Angus and The Maverick Angels. Each group was to perform a mixture of their own material and some of Fraser’s tunes.
The aim of the weekend was to get the bones of a few arrangements of Fraser’s tunes, for the ending sets of the concert. These arrangements were also to be the starting point for material for the performance as part of the “Islay Night” at Celtic Connections. This music will eventually be recorded on a CD, to accompany the release of a Fraser’s tune book.
On Friday evening, a concert and ceilidh took place at Laphroaig Distillery whilst at Port Charlotte Hotel there were tunes with Eilidh, Ross and Angus. Performing at Laphroaig were a number of young people from Islay in various groups, including the high school trad band who played two of Fraser’s tunes; The C-Side and Grahame Allison’s Reel. After the lovely concert, John, Innes and a few more sat down to play a few ceilidh sets, to which all danced. This was broken up occasionally with some lovely songs from Maeve and LB.
The Saturday night concert saw a great variety of acts perform. It kicked off to a start with Gráinne and Tina playing some of their own tunes along with a pair of reels written by Fraser; Abandon Ship and Octomore. Maeve was up next, singing some beautiful Gaelic songs, accompanied by Ross (guitar) and Innes (fiddle). Included in her set was Clachan Uaine, an old favourite of Fraser’s which his band Cluanas used to play. There was some lively tunes and songs from Laura-Beth and Adam, and from Lori. Eilidh, Ross and Angus joined forces to deliver a foot stompin’ set of tunes and Ross made the crowd laugh with some great stories of Fraser from when he lived on Skye. The Maverick Angels also took to the stage to play some old favourites.
Towards the end of the night, all the musicians got up to showcase their hard work over the weekend. They played a set of two jigs; The Machrie and Force 10 and two reels; Slumberland’s and K’s, both very lively sets. An arrangement of Lori’s was played; Murmuration, a tune by Fraser, paired with Aurora, written by Lori – Fraser and Lori always spoke of going to see the northern lights. Murmuration had been inspired by the awesome bird formations Fraser would see around his home in Bruichladdich. The result of her work is a spectacular piece of music, beginning with Fraser’s lovely tune and leading into Aurora, the feel of which perfectly captures the spectacular light shows in the sky. This particular set sounded astonishing played by the group. Fraser’s slow air Air Chall, was played as a string arrangement, with Innes on lead fiddle and Adam, Eilidh, Lori, Gráinne and Duncan playing layered bass lines and harmonies underneath it, a hauntingly beautiful piece. As an encore the whole band played The C-Side, a real favourite and quite an emotional tune, as it is both simultaneously sad and happy, reminding all of good times.
A great weekend was had by all and the concert was particularly special. Big thank you to Grahame, Isobel and everyone at Port Charlotte Hotel, Laphroaig Distillery, Bruichladdich Distillery, Calmac Ferries and all our sponsors.
See “The Islay Sessioners” perform Fraser’s tunes alongside some of Islay’s local talent including Alasdair Currie and Simon Moran Trio. Tickets for “Islay Night” concert at Celtic Connections can be purchased here.