Findlay Napier & Gillian Frame with Mike Vass – The Ledger (2020)
Cliff de Booy
A couple of years ago I had the great pleasure of reviewing Luminosity, the brilliant album of the Scottish folk band
Back of the Moon.
It was at that point that I fell in love with the voice of lead singer Findlay Napier. Back of the Moon went their separate ways two years after the release of Luminosity, but it didn’t stop the former bandmembers from making music.
for instance released a couple of solo albums: VIP: Very Interesting People in 2015, the EP Very Interesting Extras (2016>, Glasgow (2017), and quite recently It IS What It Is. Especially the 2017 album Glasgow is still a firm favourite within my record collection.
Findlay isn’t the only former Back of the Moon member that I’ve been following. Although not involved in this particular project, some of you may have read my
of the folk concept albums Findlay’s brother
has released over the years. And to keep it all in the family, Findlay’s wife,
released a lovely album of her own called Pendulum (2016) that I also had the pleasure of
Given how much I love all the albums by this musical family – and their friends-, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to hearing The Ledger. Little did I know it would become a journey into traditional Scottish folk music. A musical journey I enjoyed a lot!
So what’s the story behind The Ledger? In this case, it is easiest to let Findlay Napier explain it himself:
-‘Every week in the late 50s and early 60s The Scotsman published a traditional Scottish folk song: lyrics and melody alongside an explanatory article. My Grandfather cut them out and pasted them into an old ledger. In early 2018 Gillian, Mike, and I whittled over sixty neatly cut and pasted songs from the ledger down to the songs you hear on this recording. At first, we searched for a theme but in the end, we chose the ten we liked singing the most.
The Ledger is best enjoyed beside a roaring fire with a dram…, tea and coffee also work…, especially with a dram in them.’ [taken from Bandcamp]
So there’s The Ledger for you. A lovely trip down memory lane recorded by Gillian Frame ( fiddle, lead- and backing vocals), Findlay Napier (guitar, high strung guitar, lead, and backing vocals),
(tenor guitar, fiddle, and music box) together with
Bonnie George Campbell is the song that opens this album and indeed it feels like a warm fire on a winter’s evening. Now I already told you, I just love Findlay Napier’s singing. His voice feels so emotional, it has such a beautiful timbre, his technique seems so effortless, that his vocal chords always seem to make a direct connection with my heart. He manages to add meaning to every word he sings, making him the ultimate singer/songwriter in my opinion. Combine that voice with some delicate guitar -, and bass playing, add the beautiful second voice from Gillian Frame, and you get a song that feels timeless. Call me weird but Bonnie George Campbell actually feels like home.
That comforting feeling of coming home is something that stays with me throughout this whole album. Findlay, Gillian, and Mike have managed to capture the feeling I would have had visiting my grandparents as a young kid, playing with the old toys, having that lovely tomato soup only grandma could make. All the songs on The Ledger ooze tradition, but without sounding old-fashioned. Bonnie George Campbell may sound purely traditional, with the next song, the more upbeat Burnie Bushel I can already hear the first cool tweaks I recognize from Back of the Moon’s Luminosity. There is that cool second guitar weaving through the song from the start for instance. Or the catchy fiddle solo Gillian plays halfway through Burnie Bushel. And I haven’t even mentioned that cool high-pitched sound coming in at the end yet, making me think for a second it was a hurdy-gurdy. I love those modern tweaks the ‘band’ has woven into the music. Contrasting, yet also complimenting the warm traditional singing style of Gillian and Findlay.
It is the constant contrast between these modern, contemporary tweaks and the traditional singer/songwriter duet style that is the strength of this album. It is also the reason why I started looking up the songs played. It made me curious how other artists jhad done it. It also made me curious about the history of all these songs. The first time I listened to Baloo Baleery for instance I made a note about the cool music box intro it had. It makes the song feel warmer, more tender I wrote, not knowing it is actually a Scottish lullaby. That clearly explains the music box AND the warm feeling of this song. The ‘band is extremely good at giving the lyrics exactly the right musical feel. The next song Van Diemen’s Land proves that straight away.
Van Diemen’s Land is an old transportation ballad. It tells the story of a poor fellow caught for poaching who was transported to Van Diemen’s land (New Zealand) only for that reason. True to the text the music has a slightly dark, eerie feel over it. Not too much though, only subtle. You hear it in the slight echo used on Gillian’s voice, the equally subtle distorted effect used on Findlay’s backing vocals, the weird, cool-sounding, high-pitched plucked strings (is that the high strung guitar Findlay Napier is credited with playing?), the build-up of it all. Every aspect adds to the sadness captured so perfectly in the lyrics written some 200 years ago.
Barbara Allen is a nice comfy folk song, luring you into the Highlands. It gave me the feeling I was floating adrift over the deep dark lochs and through the hidden glens of bonnie aul’ Scotland. As I said, this album feels so much like a homecoming. And home is a stone cottage hidden in the green shoulders of the Cairngorms. At least while listening to this beautiful seventeenth-century ballad it is.
Come to think of it, one more thing I like about this album is the lack of obvious evergreens. Yes, all ten songs are traditionals, but I’ve personally only heard Jamie Raeburn and Walking All Alane before. Granted, when it comes to Celtic folk music I’m still on a journey of discovery, but still…
Walking All Alane would be the exception that makes the ‘lack-of-evergreen’ rule. The minute you hear the first notes you will recognize it as the tune of Twa Corbies; The three Ravens, but in this case with lyrics narrating about yet another love affair meeting a tragic end.
After declaring my love for Findlay’s voice earlier on, I now have to do the same for Gillian’s too. She tells this tragic story so beautifully. Again the arrangements are amazing as well. The effect on Findlay’s voice creating a certain distance in space and time is so cool. Not to mention the melodramatic string ending finishing the song brilliantly. Candy to the ear, and not only for fans of folk music.
I want to pick out one last song that is recorded on The Ledger: Twa recruitin’ Sergeants. Again a song that goes all the way back to the seventeen hundreds. In those days boys and young men would be ‘tricked’ into voluntary service with the British armies, helped by the prospect of money, the promise of a good life..and maybe a drop or two of the strong stuff.
Now this song was born as a merry march, perfect to impress the unfortunate young lads, and normally it is still played as a jolly sing-a-long. Not on The Ledger. Gillian, Findlay, and Mike deliberately took the tempo out of it and turned it into a melancholic ballad with some truly beautiful fiddling in it.
To me, it feels like they are playing it from the perspective of the same unfortunate youngster, but now at the night before he has to go into battle, hearing the promises of the recruiters ringing in his ears one more time, full of remorse. Or maybe it is from the perspective of a parent? Sitting on the side of a fresh grave, reading the last letter of their beloved son, the words he wrote dancing over and over before their tear-filled eyes. In any case it is beautiful.
‘And it’s over the mountain and over the Main,
Through Gibralter, to France and Spain.
Pit a feather tae your bunnet, and a kilt aboon your knee,
Sae list my bonnie laddie and come awa wi me.
Cover art: Elly Lucas
Pictures: Elly Lucas
Hamish Napier – The Railway (2018) review
Cliff de Booy
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
Hamish Napier – The River (2016) / The Woods (2020) Review
Cliff de Booy
The Cairngorms, a rugged mountain range in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland, nicely nestled in between the cities Inverness, Aberdeen, and Dundee. For me, it is one of my bucket list places to go. Ever since I was a kid the Highlands have had a magical attraction on me. Don’t ask me why a young Dutch kid would dream of hiking in the Scottish mountains, but I did. And that longing for anything Scottish never stopped, hence my utter joy when the last few episodes of
Autumnwatch, and Winterwatch were all recorded within the boundaries of the
Cairngorm national park.
The Cairngorms, not only are they one of my favourite spots in the world; not only are they the stage for one of the best real-life nature programmes ever made; but they are also the home of former
Back of the Moon
And just like the BBC Springwatch team sparked my love for the region even more with their wonderful camera work, Hamish managed to do exactly the same with his music. The River (2016), The Railway (2018) – an album I will introduce in a separate review- and The Woods (2020). are dedicated to this wonderful bit of the Scottish countryside.
As this review will be about two records and I have a limited amount of space available to do so, I’ll leave introducing Hamish Napier for now and go straight into the music itself. If you want to know more about this talented Scottish folk composer and multi-instrumentalist, just follow this
link to the review of The Railway,
where I do have the space to introduce him properly.
In 2016 The River, an instrumental concept folk CD celebrating the river Spey, was released. Hamish’s explains
: -“The river brings to the surface vivid images of occurrences, past and present, along the mile-long stretch of the Spey that flows past my childhood home. One of my brothers fished it, the other canoed it, my uncle Sam photographed it, my friends and I swam in it, my mother paints it and there’s my father’s daily fascination with its erratically changing water level. It will always symbolize home and a strong connection to nature.”
That connection to nature is clear from the very first song on this album, called Mayfly. Mayflies are aquatic insects closely related to dragonflies and damselflies. For the best part of the year, they live a secret life as nymphs underwater, but for a few warm days in the late spring, they hatch in their millions. Only living for a couple of hours – days at best – the whole purpose of the adult mayfly is to mate. The males will ‘dance’, flying up and down above the water to attract a female. Having so many insects do that at one time is a magical sight and Hamish Napier managed to capture that beautifully. The sound of the keyboard and flutes weave and wave through the song, just as the mayfly would do above the water. Listening to the music, you can really see the spectacle before your very eyes. A moment of calm in the music may represent a salmon rising up or a gust of wind pushing the mayfly down, and then a final tin whistle solo pushes the song to a powerful climax. This Proves that Hamish is not only a talented soloist, but also a skilled composer.
This is a skill he proves again with the second song on this album, the title track The River. The music is so well-composed that you only have to close your eyes and you will see the water. You will feel the water pass, you will see the sparks of light blinding your eyes as the ripples of water reflect the sun. You will sense the birds nesting in the reed along the banks of this beautiful river.
That magic is retained in The Whirlpool. Once again a lovely flute melody takes you by the hand and leads you deep into Hamish’s youth. Come to think of it, THAT is exactly how this album sounds: like childhood memories put to music. In every note, Hamish manages to capture the beauty of the Spey, the nature around it, and the people living around this Scottish river. The result is magical. The music just sparkles from beginning to end. A CD that will appeal to the fans of pagan folk and Celtic folk alike.
It is not all jolly times and happiness though. Like almost everything in nature, a river not only gives but sometimes also takes, and the river Spey is no exception. Drowning of the Silver Brothers is a poignant tribute to the dangers that lie hidden in the depths of the river. It is a beautiful duet between flute and piano, and one of the highlights on this album.
Musically, The River is a cool mix between traditional folk solos (mainly on the flutes), a touch of chamber music piano, and a modern easy listening bass/drums rhythm section. The jazziest of them all are the songs Floating and Huy Huy!. Two lovely Celtic flute themes put over a Shakatak kind of jazz guitar/bass/piano groove, one theme sliding effortlessly into the other.
Iasgairean Nan Neamhnaid (The Pearlfishers) is the last song on The River that I want to mention myself. A strong musical statement against the destruction of nature. The last word on The River I give to Hamish Napier, in a musical way. Here he is performing the last track of the CD: Spey Cast part 2, The Raft Race.
HAMISH NAPIER – THE WOODS (2020)
While The River is overflowing with powerful musical memories, The Woods is different, mainly because of the main theme Hamish choose for it. Instead of going for the ‘obvious’ main subjects (the majestic green skyline, the morning choir of songbirds; or the rut of the red deer), Hamish went for a different approach. Whereas he used to view “the woods” as a single, impressive entity as a child, he now sees all the different ‘actors’ that make up the woods; the mighty oak, the pioneering birch, but also the smaller bushes, the all-important insects, even the humble mycorrhizal fungi have found a place in Hamish’s songs.
The Gaelic alphabet was traditionally taught to children through the old names of the native trees, and this is the theme Hamish picked up again for his musical interpretation of the Woods, making the CD sound a wee bit less impressive from what I had assumed beforehand, but this concept definitely brings out the best in Hamish as a contemporary folk composer.
Again Hamish manages to captivate you from the very first notes of his CD. Again that ‘sparkling’ positive feel is in his playing. The Pioneer is not only a song about the first letter of the early medieval alphabet: the B, but also about one of the first trees to spread across the post ice age landscape, one of the first trees to open their leaves in spring, the Birch. It also sounds like the start of spring, the start of early morning, so it is in many ways the perfect start to The Woods.
I love the second song. It’s not about a tree and also not a letter of the Gaelic alphabet, but about one of the many creatures living in the Scottish Highlands, the
Capercaillie. Hamish says the following about it: “The Capercaillie is an otherworldly creature. The male birds are as giant as they are cantankerous and famed for their clicks, pops, and flutter jumps at the ‘lek’ during mating season. With Egyptian eyeliner, a Japanese fantail, velvet green neck plumage, and a fierce hooked beak, the giant grouse fly through the Scots pinewood canopy with all the grace of a cannonball. Capercaillies have been known to take on foes several times their own size, including stationary Land Rovers.”
This quote is taken from the extensive booklet going with The Woods, a booklet filled with information about the featured trees, mixed with some local stories, a bit of Gaelic folklore, and of course Hamish his own personal memories, all brought together through the stunning pen drawings by
The song The Capercaillie Rant / An Taghan, itself is a cheerful Celtic tin whistle/Highland pipe melody in a lovely contemporary pop jacket. Think of the style of the German band
Cara on their Horizon album
or of course Hamish’s old band Back Of The Moon.
The Tree Of Blessings is a lovely short piano piece dedicated to the juniper bush, and is a strong, rather pop-like song. The same goes for The Tree of Luck, (pop meets Celtic folk ballad). Just as The River, The Woods is an instrumental folk CD. But despite it being 66 minutes long divided over 21 tracks it has enough variation to keep you fascinated till the very last note.
Describing al 21 tracks would be rather pointless, so I’m just going to pick out some personal highlights. The first of them the jazzy folk ballad Mycorrhiza/The Tree Of Life. A lovely composition.
Another one comes immediately after that: track 6, called The Tree of Life / The Three of Lightning. It’s about the mighty Oak tree and its smaller neighbour, the holly. In folklore, the Holly King and the Oak King used to overpower one another at the solstices, with the Oak King dominating the summer and the Holly King the winter. Starting small, this song quickly evolves into an instrumental power ballad, clearly inspired by this age-old battle of the seasons. This is a relatively short, powerful song that will be loved by people who are into Celtic folk and pagan folk alike.
The Tree of Knowledge is a lovely, tender piano ballad, inspired both by the hazel, a tree that according to the Celts represented wisdom and poetic inspiration. It was also composed in honour of Rosie Fisher, a family friend of the Napiers who made two wood sculptures, one depicting Pan, and the other depicting the American naturalist, writer, and philosopher Thoreau. These inspirations, rather than the obvious ones, are what make The Woods such an interesting CD. You clearly hear the poet, the philosopher, the sculptor in this song. As a folk ballad, The Tree of Knowledge is already lovely, together with the story in the booklet it becomes magic.
Forest Folk is another one of those songs with a twist. Listening to it, it is a lovely cheerful tune, an instant earworm actually. Hamish explains this track is about all the small flowers, shrubs, mosses, and lichen you find in the woods. It is also dedicated to all those who wander in the woods, looking at all the wonders of the forests, those who take the time to find beauty in the small things in life.
You will probably realize by now that this album is actually a musical adventure. Just like the forest at first glance, appears to be a sea of green, this album at first glance seems to be ‘just’ an instrumental pop/folk album. But don’t be fooled. Take your time with and this record will ever so slowly reveal its inner beauty, bit by bit. Just as the forest will reveal ITS magic to all of us who dare to wander deep into its dark, green, but oh so majestic heart.
If you love Celtic music; focussed on flute and piano; with delicate splashes of pipes and guitar; firmly connected in tradition but with a modern sound; and if you happen to love nature as well, then The River and The Woods are an enrichment of your music collection. No doubt about that!
– editor: Iris de Wolf
-Picture: 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/