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LIVE: Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham – The Hub, Edinburgh, 12/08/2023

It’s that time of year again. Edinburgh has swelled to twice its normal size, which means that just walking anywhere takes a ridiculous amount of time. But here at The Hub, a converted church that serves as the International Festival HQ (as opposed to the fringe), it’s actually rather calm. These are sedate surroundings, a welcome antidote to grinding my teeth at people who think standing in the middle of the pavement is acceptable. It’s also great to see that the audience spans well over seventy years, in what could be someone’s living room.

The last time I saw accordionist Phil Cunningham MBE was at the city’s Queen’s Hall, last Christmas (and a rather fantastic night it was, too). That night fiddle player Aly Bain MBE wasn’t with him, but it certainly felt like he was there in spirit. The pair have been playing together for nearly thirty years, and if we’re going to have Honours systems then these are the kind of folk who should be getting them (what on earth are you suggesting, now? – Live Ed). Tonight is the start of a 30-date tour, so as Phil points out we’re getting them fresh.

The event starts off with ‘The Shores Of Loch Bee‘ and it sets the tone for the evening; they start with a song, it then takes in another song or reel and then another. For some songs it’s a shame we can’t dance, but it is a joy to listen. So many tourist shops in the vicinity will pump out the aural sewage equivalent of tartan tat; with Messrs Bain and Cunningham what you get is the real deal. There’s also the matter of the banter, some slightly risque but really very gentle jokes which adds to the informality of the session.

Some of the tunes are written by Cunningham and Bain, while others are traditional, not just from Scotland, but also from as far afield as Estonia and French-speaking Canada. There’s a waltz for a Dr. Robbie Shepherd, which is mixed in with a French-Canadian waltz. Even though they don’t sing, it’s a sign of how moving this music is that the tribute to Liam O’Flynn of Planxty – ‘So Long, Liam‘ is genuinely moving. They’re equally about keeping traditional music alive as well as adding new songs to the canon, such as the commission ‘Loch Katrine’s Lady‘ that was written to celebrate Sir Walter Scott‘s ‘The Lady Of The Lake‘ poem.

They’re well received (well, apart from the dour Presbyterian couple I hear moaning about them not playing ‘The Black Isle‘ and other favourites; I think it’s fairly safe to assume they’re heading back to Morningside where they’ll have had their tea). Live and on record, there’s a genuine warmth about these two collaborators and friends that is infectious. If you can’t get to see them live just yet, I recommend their album No Rush, which includes tonight’s closing number ‘Lightly Swims The Swan.’ A lovely and fitting tribute to a great evening.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.