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Reviews / Review: sit-down comedy + sublime music = a night of pure joy thanks to Aly and Phil

Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham delivered another night of mirth and music at Mareel on Friday. Photo: Dale Smith.
Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham in Shetland in 2017. Photo: Dale Smith

WHY would anyone want to read a review of Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham’s 31st Annual World Tour of Shetland and Many Other Places Forbye? I mean, if you were there in Mareel on Friday night and/or Waas on Saturday, you already know what a superb evening’s entertainment it was. And if you weren’t there, well, a review will only upset you because you missed all the virtuoso musical merriment. But here goes, anyway…

To be honest, as the years “roll by like a broken down dam”, each time I buy a ticket for an Aly and Phil concert I secretly worry if they’ll have started to lose their touch. This year, once again, the answer was “not any time soon”. The Mareel concert was one of their best shows ever and we could only gaze in wonder as the fingers fairly flew over the fiddle and accordion for almost three hours, with not a sheet of music or a playlist in sight.

Aly played a tune he learned when he was 11, from an LP his uncle sent him from Sandwick. The postie had bent it in two to push it through the Russell Crescent letterbox but once they ironed the disc it was OK, although the way Aly plays it there’s still a little hiccup where the needle jumped the groove. Or so he says.

“If he tells himsel’ ony mair jokes we’ll never get oot o’ here,” said Aly of his long-standing musical compadre. Photo: Dale Smith.

Phil played a tune he learned when he was nine, the same one he always plays in every concert and I can never remember the name of it, but the point is that if you’ve been playing as long as these two fellows (their combined ages are 128) you’re bound to get good at it. The trick is to stay good. It helps to keep playing musical tricks on each other. One of the joys of an Aly and Phil session is to watch their faces as they continually surprise each other, the audience, and themselves, with little diversions and improvisations.

As ever, we had a musical tour de force of the North Atlantic, with tunes from Shetland, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and Nova Scotia. For your reviewer, the highlight was the finest, and fastest, rendition of Hangman’s Reel that I’ve ever heard (and in my days at Radio Shetland I heard a few).

Aly explained that when they were younger they played fast to impress the lasses; in middle age they played fast to remind themselves how they used to impress the lasses; but now, as age took its toll, they played fast because they were worried they wouldn’t make it to the end of the tune. Nae faer o’ dat!

They even played us a Cajun tune: Phil explained that, long ago, when gigs were few and far between, they went to London, at their own expense, to play for a film. On arrival the director (“He was wearing a cravat. A cravat!”) gushed about how delighted he was to have secured the services of two such well known Cajun musicians. He’d confused them with the Balfa brothers, listed alphabetically next to ‘Bain, Alistair’, in the musicians’ directory. After a private discussion in the toilet (where a lot of their planning is done, it seems) they put on French accents to sing that well-known Louisiana number ‘Window the in doggie that is much how, sale for doggie’s that hope do I’, played in the style of Clifton Chenier. No questions asked and they trousered a cheque for four grand.

If Aly’s astonishingly flexible right wrist ever fails him, or if Phil should one day forget which buttons to press on the squeeze box, they could still have a career in sitdown comedy. As usual their show featured a lot of old jokes. I have no problem with that as the old ones are usually the best ones and it’s always good to hear them again, like meeting up with old friends.

Many of the jokes were about getting old, short-sighted and forgetful, a sort of ‘Last of the Summer Whisky’ show. For example, Phil recalled hearing a famous young Canadian fiddler (whose name was news to me and forgotten already) playing a slow air as the introduction to her act at a music festival in Nova Scotia. Later he said to her: “That was a beautiful tune. Who wrote it?”

“Are you crazy?” she replied. “You did.” Turned out he’d written it down for her on the back of a fag packet at half past two in the morning in the beer tent of a Danish folk festival, years back, and forgotten all about it.

Then there was the one about the great Robbie Shepherd, who retired from the BBC’s Take the Floor last year, aged 80: “And wir next tune is dedicated tae Willie So-and-So fae Dunecht, wha’s a hunder and ulleeven this week. Amazin’!”

Traditional quartet Vair, whose debut album A Place In Time has just received its digital release, opened both Aly & Phil shows. Photo: Dale Smith.

As the strains of Jimmy Shand died away, Robbie confessed to the microphone: “Err, sorry aboot that. Willie’s no a hunder and ulleeven. He’s ill.”

As well as the old jokes, Aly and Phil always have some new ones, usually based on a morning stroll around whichever toon or toonship they’re playing in tonight. And so we heard how the landing at Sumburgh in a very cross wind had cured Phil’s constipation; how he’d asked in the butcher’s what a sparl was (and received a very detailed anatomical reply which I will not repeat, for fear of offending our more delicate readers); and there was speculation about the display of lingerie in a local draper’s shop window: would there be a market, Phil wondered, given the Shetland climate, for a joint venture between Anne Summers and Helly Hansen? “Mebbe a bra wi’ a furry hood?”

“If he tells himsel’ ony mair jokes we’ll never get oot o’ here,” said Aly, and proceeded to recall how, when they were summoned to play at Balmoral, HMQ had inquired about the co-ordination required to play the accordion: “I axed her if she’d ever tried to pat hersel on da heid while rubbin’ her belly button at da sam time.”

Phil’s rendition of the heir to the throne singing “The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie” (with his hand in his waistcoat pocket) then brought the house down. “That’s wir knighthoods oot the windae,” he said.

And so it went on, with Aly patiently trying to teach Phil how to spik Shetlan (“Düs du mind whit du wis daein da day Di an Dodi deed?” and Phil almost falling off his chair at Aly’s valiant attempts to master the Doric.

I do wish it could have gone on for longer but at my age you have to answer the calls of nature increasingly frequently so it’s as well they finished at eleven. But here’s one for the road: Phil was in a pub reading a P&J story aboot yun wife Peggy fae Beauly wha failt her driving test for the 17th time. The driving examiner happened to be at the next table. “Fit wis it this time?” Phil inquired. “Well, when I asked her what road signs she might expect to see when driving in a rural area, she thought for a bit and then said: ‘Pick yer ain strawberries?’”

Oh my! Fir sic a nicht o’ mirth an’ music… Haste ye back!

Jonathan Wills