It is a dark autumn night in 1999 and the talk is all about the Millennium Bug and aeroplanes that are going to fall out of the sky. We find this reviewer in a tiny village hall on the east mainland of Orkney with a gale blowing outside, the timbers of the old building creating threateningly as elderly farmers weave their way around the dance floor, their faces red with exertion and generous helpings of Highland Park. Soup is already cooking in the kitchen, signalling the imminent conclusion of the dance and harvest home supper, when there’s a clatter at the outer door, and someone says, “Oh, it’s Aly and Phil come to wur dance,” and there, in the dim light of the hallway, stand Aly Bain and Phill Cunningham, fresh from their sell-out concert in Kirkwall and ready to party.
The dance is nearly done but someone says, “Will you play us a tune, lads?” and the boys take the stage cheerfully, and play – unpaid – for nearly half an hour as the storm rages outside, and today, nearly two decades later, their music is just as fresh and spontaneous as they pack the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh on a warm Saturday night, their melodies haunting, their patter and craic rambling and entrancing. “I was speaking to the Queen at Balmoral,” Phil suddenly tells us. “She asked about the concentration needed to play the accordion and I heard myself saying, ‘Have you ever tried to scratch your head and rub your tum at the same time, your majesty?’ And she admitted that she hadn’t.Then Aly chimes in, ‘Oh, you’ve never lived.'”
So it goes and the two hours fly past, with ballads and waltzes reverberating in lilting harmony, then reels and Strathspeys getting faster and faster as the musicians compete with each other for speed and dexterity. Aly Bain’s fiddle moans with the throaty rasp of French chanteuses then sings like the shrill calls of seabirds from his native Shetland; while Phil Cunningham’s accordion and keyboard work soars into the symphonic with an unhurried virtuoso confidence.
It’s a fabulous night, and though it’s regrettable that so many of their audience these days are old and grey, this reviewer’s young companion is suitably entranced by the whole experience. “Magical, just magical,” she says as we head for the exit and the haar of a Musselburgh night. “I didn’t know that music like that existed.”