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Reviews / Rediscovering the joy of live performance

Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham at Mareel on Saturday night. Photo: Caroline Moyes

“We’ll play a few tunes, and dat’ll be da wye o it”, announced Aly Bain, as he and his long-time musical compadre Phil Cunningham took to the stage at Mareel on Saturday night. 

It must have been a pretty surreal experience for the duo, as they looked out across the fully-masked audience filling the auditorium to welcome back two of Shetland’s favourite musicians. 

No matter, they were here, playing an actual live gig, to an actual full house; something we could only have dreamt of this time last year.

Straight into the opening set The Shores of Loch Bee, The Headlands, and The Barrowburn Reel and it was obvious that Aly and Phil were relishing being back on stage together  after an 18-month enforced separation.  

They confessed to very little rehearsal, with Aly apparently singing suggested tunes to Phil before coming on stage, but you would never have known. It was as if they were both rediscovering the joy of live performance, giving their playing a freshness and vitality. 

Their musical virtuosity goes without saying:  Aly in tremendous form, particular in Midnight on the Water and Bonaparte’s Retreat, and Phil with his trademark performance of Bobby MacLeod’s Jean’s Reel – a tune he has almost managed to incorporate in every live gig he has played.

A bit like the boys themselves, these were old favourites given a new lease of life!

The slower material was where they really shone: several of Phil’s compositions selected from the duo’s most recent release No Rush featured in the set list. They included So Long Liam, a beautiful tribute to the late Uilleann piper Liam O’ Flynn, the gentle waltz written for Dr Robbie Shepherd MBE and, for me, the showstopper – Eleanor of Usan.  Music that can bring tears to your eyes is a very powerful and beautiful thing.

Of course, you’re never more than a few minutes away from a laugh at an Aly and Phil concert, and so it was with this one.  The two poke gentle fun at each other, and Phil is a master mimic (and dubious joke teller)!

At the start of the gig, the two were slightly puzzled about how they would be able to tell if their masked-up audience were enjoying the show.

I don’t think they need have worried. I suspect that, behind the masks, we all came out smiling, and revelling in the return of live music.  We’ve missed it so much.

Caroline Moyes