Little did I know what a treasure chest of music I would discover when Mark van der Stelt suggested I should write an introduction to
Back of the Moon‘s
album Luminosity. Not only was the music by the band itself mesmerizing, but so were the projects that the band were involved with afterward. There is the singer/songwriter extraordinaire
(go check out his three solo albums and discover the magic of ‘just’ a voice and a guitar), there is the lovely Celtic folk on Pendulum,
2016 solo album I reviewed a couple of months ago (link), and I haven’t even started exploring the trazillion records
has been involved with. But today I want to focus on the lovely concept folk albums of composer and multi-instrumentalist
something I have wanted to do from the moment I first listened to them on
Earlier I combined his two nature-inspired albums: The River (2016) and The Woods (2020) in one review
now I will focus on the third solo album Hamish has recorded up till now: The Railway.
Hamish Napier, to quote the bio on his webpage:
-“ is originally from Strathspey in the Scottish Highlands. For over a decade he has been an integral part of Glasgow’s vibrant folk music scene, whilst also touring in Europe and North America with Scottish folk quartet Back of the Moon (‘Folk Band of the Year 2005’ MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards). Gaining degrees in Astronomy and Music when he first moved from his native Highlands to the city of Glasgow, Hamish was then awarded a year’s scholarship to study jazz piano and composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. Hamish now teaches composition and music theory at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and at music schools and festivals worldwide. He has recently returned to his native Strathspey, composing three solo albums The River (2016), The Railway (2018), and The Woods (2020) in celebration of his homeland.‘
When Hamish performed The River live in Grantown in summer ’16, Karen Blessington approached him enthusiastically after the show, inviting him to compose a soundtrack to her exciting new venture,
the Grantown East: Highland Heritage & Cultural Centre.
And the rest, as they say, is history. During the making of this album, Hamish talked a lot with former railwaymen Jimmy Gray (then 93), Jacky Hay (then 94), and James Telfer (then 94). The Railway is as much their story as it is Hamish’s.
The record kicks off with The Speyside Line. As on the whole record, Hamish combines his love for piano and whistles with his talent to compose really catchy instrumental Celtic folk songs that are rich in tradition but with a modern, slightly jazzy sound. Those jazzy laid back drums and double bass lines are what make his folk music so accessible. The song is about the Spey line itself, its route never far from the river, sometimes almost hanging over it, and – listening to the music – traveling it must have been beautiful. Hamish – the composer – has this special ability to take a picture in notes, to create a drawing in his melody lines, and on The Speyside Line he makes us re-live every bend of this historic line.
‘A pair of tunes for a pair of steam locomotives’ That’s how Hamish introduces Double Header, the second song on The Railway. And yes Hamish did indeed write a song to immortalize two famous old steam locomotives. Even more actually. For the steam geeks here is the rest of Hamish’s introduction:
–‘The first tune is for
of the Highland Railway, the popular ‘Black 5’ (LMS Class 5) which driver Jocky Hay praised as a “damn good engine!” The second is for
the Gordon Highlander, the Speyside Line’s most beloved LNER D40. The Strathspey Railway’s beautifully restored
Ivatt Class 2 locomotive
also gets a wee mention, its
British Rail train number ‘46512’
is also the chord sequence in the bridge between the two tunes!’
I love reading those introductions. It really brings the music and story together in a funny and witty way. The song itself starts with some lovely upbeat variations on flute and violin representing ‘the Hikers’ of the Highland railway before the highland pipes slowly ‘merge’ in to represent ‘the Sojer’ of the Speyside line.
Next up is Jocky the Mole and it brings back the glory days of Back of the Moon, with the brothers Napier joining forces one more time. Findlay takes the vocals twice on The Railway: in this song, and in The World Came In By Rail. Both are, as we Dutch say, pearls of Celtic singer-songwriter folk music that would not have sounded out of place on that classic album Luminosity. My first highlight of the CD.
It is followed straight by my second highlight: The Firebox. Don’t ask me HOW Hamish did it, but I can just see the flames licking through the coals as the fire is lit in the firebox. You can feel the engine heating up, you can feel the immense power, that was able to pull all those carriages up the Hills awakening. The steal muscles of the mighty machine gearing up for action. The deep double bass rhythm in the song represents that mighty power, the flute and fiddle variations represent the fire jumping and licking over the coals as the fireman shoved shovel after shovel of fuel into the firebox.
The Old Ways is:
[quote] ‘a slow 6/8 march written in honour of the traditional skills, trades, and ways of life lovingly preserved by historians and enthousiasts[…][..]celebrating what is unique and special about our culture.’Up The Hill starts as a lovely song with a mesmerizing flute solo that gently eases your mind into a state of calm. If you would tell me that it is about hanging in a grass field with a strand of grass in my mouth, chilling while I am looking at the clouds passing by overhead I would have believed you. But… …the second part of the song O’er Drumochter would not fit at all, so it can’t be. And indeed it isn’t. It is about the climb to Drumochter summit, the highest part of the Scottish railway, and the struggle the old steam engines had getting up there. The story is captured wonderfully in the booklet, told by the old railwayman Jimmy Gray. As I said, this is as much the old railwaymen’s story as anything else. And Hamish is a master in capturing that.
This is proven best in Helen’s Song. A heartfelt ballad that Hamish composed in memory of Jimmy Gray’s wife Helen, who was with him for 63 years. Starting as a beautiful piano piece, it is Patsy Reid and her string skills that make Helen’s Song an exquisite homage to a lifetime of love.
But this album is not only the story of the railwaymen, in Dr. McGugan’s and Cheery Groove the story gets a true personal touch. The first song is an air written as a gift to a close friend, the second song a slip jig composed for his parents, in memory of all the great house ceilidhs -social gatherings- with friends and family over the years. In an interview, Hamish said that he finds it extremely important not to separate the ‘folk’ from the music and that is the power of this beautiful CD. The magic of it lies in the combination of music and the story told in the booklet, which was sometimes witty as the old railwaymen told their anecdotes, sometimes interesting as Hamish went into the history of the line itself, sometimes touching and beautiful as proven in Helen’s Song. I loved reading it.
This is one of those albums that got me writing as soon as I heard the first notes. Not to outdo The River,which I love, and The Woods, also a strong and unique Celtic folk album, I arguably consider The Railway to be Hamish’s best record yet. (This is a purely personal opinion though, so feel free to disagree.) Gems like Diesel, Jocky The Mole, and Helen’s Song have helped this album find its way into my CD player time and time again.
Together the trilogy of The River, The Railway, and The Woods is a true homage to the Cairngorms, the place where Hamish Napier grew up, the place he now calls home again. On the postcard that goes with the CDs it says:’ Hamish Napier; Scottish Highlander – Folk Musician – Composer – Tutor. To put it in THAT order is a clear statement! Through ALL of Hamish’s his solo work you can hear the love and pride he has for his home country, for the people that live in it, for the history of the land, for his beloved Highlands! And the best thing about it? He is not done yet! The fourth album is already on its way. I can’t wait to hear it!
-editor: Iris de Wolf
-pictures: Hamish Napier
If you would like to support Hamish Napier you can find him on:
– Facebook or
CeltCast Classic – Back of the Moon – Luminosity (2005)
Cliff de Booy
The last months we started a new series of reviews that we call the CeltCast Classics. In this series, we feature older albums that we feel deserve to be in the spotlight one more time either because of their importance, their influence on the scene, or just because they are stunningly beautiful. Now the collective CeltCast record collection will be quite enough to keep us going for a good while, but we felt it would be way more interesting if we would ask well-known people from the scene to nominate a CeltCast classic. The very first we asked to do so was no other then
creative director and one of the masterminds behind
Mark van der Stelt.
His answer came swiftly:” I’ve narrowed it down to 3 options,
Back of the Moon
It’s gonna be Luminosity by Back of the Moon, that’s the album I play the most. The first time I heard this CD I knew I wanted to invite this band on one of our podia. The music comes together perfectly. Delightful timing, and the voice of the singer is brilliant.
Sadly they split up. It would be really something if they would be willing to grace Keltfest for a one-time reunion concert!”
So the research began. Who were Back of the Moon? What did their music sound like? What are the band members up to nowadays? And most importantly, can we still get a hold of their music?
Well, Back of the Moon are a Scottish band that formed in 2000, first under the name Gillian Frame & Back of the Moon. The founding band members were Gillian Frame (fiddle, vocals), Simon McKerrell (border pipes, uillean pipes, whistle, vocals) and Hamish Napier, (piano, vocals). In 2001 Findlay Napier (guitar, vocals) was asked to join the band and with that line-up, the band released their first album Gillian Frame & Back of the Moon on the
Foot Stompin’Records label.
In 2003 their second record Fortune’s Road came out. A lovely Scottish folk album, mixing Scottish instrumental folk songs with traditional sounding vocal songs. At that point, they shortened the band name to Back of the Moon.
Fortune’s Road won the band their first accolades, winning Best Up and Coming Act at the
Scots Trad Music awards
back in 2003 and Best Celtic Group” at
Festival Interceltique de Lorient.
After that Simon McKerrell left the band and was replaced by Ali Hutton (border pipes, whistle, Bodhrán) and in that formation Back of the Moon recorded Luminosity which was also released by Foot Stompin’Records in 2005 and is still available through them as digital album. (for information click
With Luminosity, Back of the Moon won the title of Best Folk Band with the Scots Trad Music awards. A well-deserved reward! Sadly, in November 2007 the curtain was drawn for the last time, as Back of the Moon played their very last gig at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.
As far as I can see only Luminosity is still officially available with Foot Stompin’, but CD’s are still regularly available second hand through eBay and Amazon, and that is how we got our copy of this brilliant CD, ’cause I can already tell you this really is a gem. So let’s dive into it!
Wow, that opening stands. That’s the first thing I thought as I heard the powerful first piano chords of Lumsden’s Rant. This sounded more like a pop album, a bit like
actually, not like the Celtic folk I was expecting. Not for long though. Soon enough the pipes, violin and whistles join in the fun for a good old Gaelic dance tune, full of energy, full of cool variations in the melody. Still, it’s not in your typical folk style, the piano chords and pop arrangements under it give it some extra dynamics, as if Keane indeed started playing Scottish folk. Back of the Moon has me wide awake after this strong opener.
I actually expected the band to carry on with that same full-on energy but no, they change down gears all the way with the second and third song; Glenlogie and Nine Stone Rig. Both are beautiful ballads that wouldn’t look out of place on any good singer-songwriter album.
Glenlogie is – according to the booklet – one of the few traditional Scottish ballads with a happy ending and it features the beautiful voice of Findlay Napier. You can compare it to Belgian singer-songwriter
Findlay has the same pleasant, friendly tone that Milow has. Your mind instantly calms down when he starts singing. Mesmerising. And Back of the Moon had two such those voices! As you can hear on Nine Stone Rig, Gillian Frame is blessed with an equally mesmerising voice, a wee bit like
It’s rare for a band to have two singers of this calibre and luckily Back of the Moon makes full use of them.
Both Glenlogie and Nine Stone Rig are lovely calming ballads, played ever so tenderly, weaving a blanket of soothing notes around the vocalists, making them sound even warmer and softer than they already are. The lovely trumpet ‘solo’ in Glenlogie or the flute improvisations in Nine Stone Rig are the icing on the cake. What a wonderful start to this album.
Back of the Moon performing The Brewer lady at
the Philadelphia Folk Festival,
The fourth song, Eggs In The Kitchen, is the second of the six instrumental folksongs you’ll find on Luminosity. This time it starts more traditional, a gentle violin melody opens this song, named after a remark grandpa Napier once made:’There are eggs in the kitchen!.’ Well, it must have been scrambled eggs, cause when the pipes come in the tempo accelerates fast and Eggs In The Kitchen becomes a tasty mix of Celtic folk meets upbeat pop music. I actually love the pop arrangements Back of the Moon added to their instrumental songs. It gives them something extra. A bit of extra punch.
It always sounds so easy, recording a Gaelic jig or reel, but it actually is really hard. First, you need a catchy tune, then the talent to keep the variations interesting and lastly the imagination to give it the arrangement that makes it stand out from all those other dance tunes out there. Back Of the Moon combined all those talents. This includes the cool stereo effects in Eggs In the Kitchen, the lovely melodies and variations in songs like Lumsden’s Rant, Eggs In he Kitchen or Goodfellas, or the lovely pop arrangements and trombone halfway through the latter song. Back of the moon has it all.
With Joey Beauty and Voodoo Chilli, the band even recorded two instrumental ballads! And good ones at that. Joey Beauty, for instance, is a beautiful love song, sung not by vocals, but by Gillian on fiddle and Hamish on flute.
Now that I’ve mentioned them, ballads are the speciality of Back of the Moon. I already mentioned Glenlogie and Nine Stone Rig, but there are way more gems like that on Luminosity. Gillian’s beautiful voice (and also Ali’s lovely whistle melodies) shine once more in The Final Trawl.
Brewer Lad is a positive upbeat folk song, sung by Findlay Napier, reminding me a lot of the German band
who we featured in our previous CeltCast Classics. I especially like how Findlay and Gillian’s voices blend together here. A match made in heaven.
I’ve saved the best for last though. A song that is also Mark van de Stelts favourite: Ship In A Bottle. It starts with a stunning violin and flute intro that made me totally tear up the first time I heard it. I still get goosebumps all over when this song starts. Findlay’s voice is absolutely beautiful in this touching ballad of what could have been but never was. One of the best ballads I’ve heard in a long while. Celtic singer-songwriter folk at its very, very best! I fully understand why Mark nominated Luminosity to be a CeltCast Classic. This song alone makes this album worth that title. You may need to search a bit to obtain it, but it will be so worth the effort. Luminosity is a wonderful pop-folk album. I can only hope that Mark manages to make his wish come true and that Back of the Moon will grace the stage one more time. I know that I’ll be standing right there, front row, taking it all in. Guaranteed
-editor: Diane Deroubaix
Special thanks to Mark van der Stelt and Diane Deroubaix for providing me with the music and inspiration.
After the breakup of Back of the Moon, all bandmembers remained extremely active within the Scottish folk scene. Here is a small summary:
– Simon McKerrell
now has a PhD. To quote his biography: ‘Dr Simon McKerrell is a Reader in Music and Society at Newcastle University and has previously worked at the Universities of Sheffield, Glasgow and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He is interested in the social impact of music and the creative industries. His current research focuses on music in the creative economy in rural areas and takes an interdisciplinary and mixed methods approach to the relationship between culture and policy. He is the author of Focus: Scottish Traditional Music (Routledge), and the Co-Editor of both Music as Multimodal Discourse: Media, Power and Protest (Bloomsbury) and Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition, Modernity (Routledge).”
He is also still actively playing the pipes.
More info on that can be found on his website: https://simonmckerrell.com/
– Ali Hutton has been extremely busy since 2007 sharing his talent with numerous folk acts and bands, building up a discography that counts well over thirty records! Among them are
with whom he has the
Ross and Ali
project, which at the moment is BIG news in the UK and the band
Old blind dogs.
He is also a founding member of
the Treacherous Orchestra,
which, according to Findlay Napier, is a HUGE band in the British folk scene -and I’ll gladly take his word in it.
For all info:
– Hamish Napier has been just as active as Ali Hutton, working as a tutor; a composer; a producer and co-arranger a solo artist and a live performer. He does that as part of the duo
with fiddler Adam Sutherland; withDuncan Chrishom’s ‘gathering’;
as well as the
Jarlath Henderson band.
He also works together with Ross Ainslie in his
Next to that, he has received many more accolades over the years. Among them, Best composer and Best tutor of the year with the Scots Trad music awards, AND has his own
out. The lovely albums The River (2016) and The Railroad (2018). Both cd’s I’m sure will find their way to my review table at some point in time.,/br>
-Gillian Frame, just as all other former Back of the Moon members, has been an active contributor to the Scottish folk scene, as a tutor but also a session musician with acts such as
The Unusual Suspects,
Mairearad Green and
Anna and Duncan Lyall’s infinite reflections.
In February 2016 she released a solo album called
a CD of which she herself says:
‘This is a collection of songs and tunes that have cemented themselves into my repertoire over the last 15 or so years. Favourites from both performing and teaching contexts and arranged here with the support of the wonderful Mike Vass, Anna Massie and Euan Burton. ‘
Together with her husband Findlay Napier she has also been active in the
Findlay Napier Trio
and a soon to be launched new project called
More info is found here:
– Last but not least is Findlay Napier, who has also been busy, releasing three solo albums,
VIP: Very Interesting Persons in 2015; the mini CD
very Interesting Extras in 2016 and
Glasgow in October 2017.
Furthermore, he is touring with The Findlay Napier duo, trio, quartet or band, depending on the wishes of the venue. he is about to launch a new project with his wife Gillian Frame called The Ledger; he also became a tutor just like Gillian and Hamish and organises the
Glasgow Songwriting Festival.
More info on Findlay Napier is to be found here: https://www.findlaynapier.com/