Tag Archives: Phil Bancroft

John Rae Sextet: “Ah Um”. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

It wasn’t planned, but several of the gigs I went to in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival celebrated musicians or their records: The Birth of the Cool; Thelonious; Coltrane; Dizzy and Bird; and this gig, in which John Rae lead a band paying homage to Mingus and specifically his 1959 record, Mingus Ah Um.

Mingus Ah Um has long been one of my favourite records: it was the first jazz LP I had, a gift from my father one Christmas (I’d asked for some jazz, not knowing what records specifically to request; as well as Mingus, he gave me a Miles Davis Quintet double, Relaxin’ / Workin’, a live Ellington record, and Benny Goodman Live At Carnegie Hall. I didn’t like the latter, and still don’t, but loved the rest).

So of course I had to see Rae, back in Scotland for some gigs, and a pick up band play Mingus. Rae was joined by the very excellent Phil Bancroft on tenor, who brought his own anarchic energy to the gig, a necessary ingredient to Mingus’ music; a couple of bassists to ensure sufficient Mingusicity, Patrick Bleakley and an American player whose name I didn’t get (many apologies if that was you!); and two more guests from the States, Shea Pierre on piano and a trombonist who I think was named David Hawkins (but I can’t verify that, so I might have got it wrong).

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They played a few tunes from Ah Um, starting off with a superb Better Get Hit In Your Soul, and later Pussy Cat Dues, but they played a variety of Mingus numbers, mostly well known – Tonight At Noon, Peggy’s Blue Skylight, Remember Rockefeller At Attica – and a couple of less well known pieces – Opus 3 and Canon.

Canon was a slow, bluesy melancholic number – and a canon, the instruments seeming to chase each other along extended lines. The band managed to achieve that Mingus sound, making a small band feel a lot bigger than it actually was. Hanging two bassists helped, with one keeping the band swinging whilst the other added little touches and emphasis, or a solo.

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They closed with an energetic Boogie Stop Shuffle, from Ah Um: a great way to finish a tribute to a wonderful album and a truly great musician.

Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2016.

I wrote briefly about my favourite Edinburgh Jazz Festival gigs for LondonJazz. Here are some of my photos from various EJF gigs I went to.

Magnus Ostrom Band.

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Paul Harrison Sugarwork.

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Graeme Stephen Quartet.

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Laura MacDonald Quartet.

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Colin Steele Quintet.

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Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival, September 2010.

Islay is a special place. It is an island – so you have to really want to be there: it takes some planning and effort to actually make the trip. It is famous for its whisky – it now has eight distilleries, producing a wide range of spirits – and its bird life. And for one weekend each year, it is home to a jazz festival.

Which makes it a very special event indeed.

The island is large, but has a small population – 3,000 or so; and it has no ordinary venues – no jazz clubs or concert halls. Instead, concerts are housed in unconventional surroundings – previous years have seen gigs in the Round Church and the bottling room of a distillery (one of my favourite all time venues!); this year they went to several distilleries and the island’s bird sanctuary.

The festival starts on a Friday evening; but it really starts on the Friday lunchtime ferry across. The boat was packed with punters, musicians, and the festival’s organisers, waiting anxiously to make sure the musicians actually make it. There was a audible sigh of relief when, with moments to spare, the last musician on the list turned up. (Though one musician was stranded on the island for the return trip, having gone to the wrong port!)

Others fly to Islay, though they miss the grandeur of the trip, leaving the hills of the mainland, passing islands before the ferry sneaks through Caol Ila (the strait, not the whisky) between Islay and Jura. It is a wonderful way to travel.

The way it works – more or less – is that a couple of more famous musicians are booked – people from the London scene, Europe or the States – and then a load of Scottish musicians come across (usually from Glasgow or Edinburgh). The ferry is a bit of a jazz Ark, because essentially there are two of each instrument. The programme basically mixes everyone up: lots of scratch gigs, and by the end of the weekend one has seen most of the musicians several times. Musicians and punters hare around the island from venue to venue.

The first gig was a duo between (Scottish) pianist Paul Harrison and the visiting US alto player Jesse Davis at the Lagavulin distillery. Lagavulin were sponsoring the festival this year, which meant they handed out ample drams at each gig – this is a very good thing! (Though I’d have been as happy if it had been Bowmore, or Bruidladdich, or Bunnahabhain, or… well, they’re all good whiskies!) Davis and Harrison opened with “I Want To Be Happy”, which seemed like a pretty good philosophy for a jazz festival. Davis, who’s been to Islay before and seems to like it there, is an altoist in the bebop-Bird mold, bringing a soulful, bluesy feel to the slower numbers; Harrison can play in a lot of different styles (from funk to free), and his accompaniment was suitably bluesy, too. A great start to the festival!

The other “guest” was pianist Zoe Rahman, up from London. All her gigs were in the Bowmore gaelic centre, which housed a grand piano for the weekend. It seemed a bit like she sat there as a stream of some of Scotland’s best jazz musicians flowed through. First up later on Friday evening were bassist Mario Caribe, drummer Stu Brown, tenor player John Burgess and trumpeter Colin Steele. Caribe is a bit of an Islay fixture, the only musician to have been at every jazz festival – this was the twelfth. This quintet had only met an hour or so before the gig but they quickly built a rapport. Caribe and Brown became Rahman’s rhythm section for the weekend. Brown took a bit of warming up, but he got better with each gig. Caribe was excellent throughout, combining subtlety with energy – a great passionate player. Rahman was great throughout the festival, too. Burgess brought his muscular toned saxophone, whilst Steele added the pyrotechnics. They played several of Caribe’s numbers, including a couple from his Islay suite, written for the 10th anniversary of the festival. An interesting combination.

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Saturday lunchtime saw John Burgess leading a quartet at Lagavulin, with Harrison on piano, Caribe on bass (looking very cool in his dark glasses – the lights were pointing straight at him!) and Doug Hough on drums. Burgess played both tenor and clarinet. A set of standards with a couple of Burgess’s tunes thrown in, this was a fun, slightly light set. Harrison played some great solos, Caribe really swung, and Burgess tried the set the gig on fire – in a shirt to match.

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I skipped the afternoon gig, choosing to walk in the rain instead (not a great decision…) before getting to Bowmore for a trio gig with Rahman, Caribe and Brown. Playing a bunch of standards as well as Caribe’s and Brown’s tunes, this was a lovely gig. Caribe shone once more, and he and Raman worked really well together – there was real musical chemistry going on. A couple of the tunes came from a suite written by Brown for Islay last year (I wasn’t there…), about the birdlife – a drunken swan, a lonely egret. It was all lovely stuff.

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The late night show on Islay is a thing of legend. I’d not been before, but I decided to stay in Bruichladdich so I could sample Colin Steele’s Melting Pot. The gig started later than its usually late start because so many people were trying to cram into the village hall. It was packed until there were no more chair, and packed a bit more. It was wonderful to hear Steele and co in such a different vibe: this time they were playing the most soulful of soul jazz. Subie Coleman sang, and she’s got a really bluesy voice, way down low. Andy Sharkey’s bass was simultaneously solid and funky – his sense of soul-time was immaculate. Steele and Phil Bancroft were a fiery frontline. I left at the interval, missing out on the party as the space cleared by those heading to their beds was apparently filled by dancers.

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Sharkey was back on bass fort Davis’ quartet lunchtime outing at Ardbeg, another enjoyable set of standards.

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But it was the following gig, Caribe, Rahman, Steele and Bancroft back at Bowmore which was the highlight of the weekend. Caribe opened with an exquisite, slow solo piece bearing a melancholy beauty; I’d love to hear him play an entirely solo set. Then he was joined the other musicians in a variety of combinations – bass and piano, then trumpet added, then sax. Rahman played a couple of solo numbers, and then the quartet finished their session together. This was marvellous music making.

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There were two more gigs, a lively trio set by altoist Martin Kershaw with Andy Sharkey and Doug Hough, and a great tribute to Cannonball Adderley with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, featuring Steele, Kershaw, Caribe, Harrison and Hough. They make the musicians work hard at Islay…

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Islay Jazz Festival. September 2008.

I have been to Islay three times now, each time for the jazz festival. Islay is famous for one thing really – whisky. And the combination of the island, the whisky and jazz makes for a very memorable weekend. Whisky flows: the jazz festival is sponsored by Black Bottle, and they give out (small) samples everywhere.

Islay is a small place: a population of 3,500 people spread over the island, and most of those are in Port Ellen and Bowmore. Much of the island is wild, and every time I go there, I think that I must spend more time exploring – I really must go for longer than just the jazz festival. Next year, perhaps.

The festival itself is a curious affair, because it largely consists of musicians from the central belt of Scotland who play regularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow playing to an audience which mostly consists of visitors from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Frankly, it shouldn’t work – because I can see these guys play any weekend.

But instead it is wonderful. Maybe it is the setting – many of the gigs take place in distilleries (the best being Bunnahabhain, where the concert takes place in the bottling room, surrounded by empty whisky casks and the air full of spirit); maybe it is the audience and the musicians – because you have to be really keen to make the 350 mile round trip from Edinburgh.

Either way, it is brilliant.

I went over on the lunchtime ferry, together with a whole bunch of musicians (Tommy Smith, Mario Caribe, Calum Gourlay, Colin Steele… Hell, they could have had a jam session on the boat!). The water was very calm; no porpoises that I could see, but I watch cormorants and gannets fly low over the water.

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I was staying in a B&B on the Oa, across the bay from Port Ellen. It overlooked the water and was a lovely setting. Rather than sit and take in the view, though, I dashed off for the first gig.

The one downside of the Islay jazz festival: all the venues are a long way from each other – and the only way between them is to drive. The first gig I wanted to get to was way on the west of the island, at Port Charlotte. A very pretty village.

The concert was a duet gig with Dave Milligan and Colin Steele. I have seen them both play many times before, often together, but never just the two of them. It worked really well – the setting creating a more thoughtful music than their usual quintet or bigger ensemble. It was very intimate; the backdrop behind the musicians was the view across Loch Indaal to Oa, which added to the whole. These two musicians know each so well that their playing blended wonderfully – Steele was perhaps not as fiery as he can be in a larger ensemble, but this lead to greater subtlety. (Too subtle for photographs, I’m afraid – I didn’t want to disturb people.)

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There was then a mad dash in convoy back to Bowmore, home to Bowmore malt. Bowmore is a great little town, but it somehow lacks a fish and chip shop. There is a very poor excuse for an Indian restaurant, though. Indeed, the whole of Islay lacks a chip shop; there is meant to be a chip van in Port Ellen on Friday and Saturday night, but I couldn’t find it.

The next gig was another duet: Tommy Smith and Jakob Karlzon. Although the hall was set up to preclude a sea-view for all but the front row, the musicians were lit by the setting sun. (I can’t quite get my head around the geography, though – because I would swear the sun was setting in the east!)

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I have seen Smith play in lots of duet settings recently: I can’t help wondering if he has perhaps become a bit of a control freak, preferring to reduce the risk of playing with more soloists by keeping to solo or duo gigs. Still, this was a spectacularly good gig. I hadn’t heard – or even heard of – Karlzon before I read the blurb for this gig, and he and Smith didn’t have time to rehearse – but they linked together really, really well. Smith was at his most Nordic; the tunes were slow and thoughtful, with a lot of reverb. Karlzon – who I saw play in many different combinations over the weekend – was a revelation: the perfect balance to the saxophone, and all in all it was a lovely gig.

The following day it was back to the west of the island, the village hall in Portnahaven, for a lunchtime gig by the Colin Steele Quintet. A lot of people had been partying late into the night, including the band (me, I don’t have the energy for that: the idea of going to a gig starting at 10.30pm, especially when I’d be driving and thus not drinking – oh no), and there were lots of hangovers, including on the stage; but it didn’t seem to get in the way of some energetic playing. The more I see Stu Ritchie, the quintet’s drummer, play, the more impressed I am (although I am not so keen on his choice of headwear – he wore a hat at every gig he played). Steele was excellent, too, and Phil Bancroft played with an angry passion; maybe he was just trying to blow away his hangover. Milligan was a bit too low in the mix, and Calum Gourlay on bass – playing his first gig with the band – seemed low-key but good. (Still, I missed Aidan O’Donnell, who decided not to leave his new New York home for the festival – apparently he received a better offer!)

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Off to Bunnahabhan; this gig – in the whisky-flavoured bottling room – is usually the big concert for the weekend; this time around, it was set up as the tenth anniversary concert, headed up by Mario Caribe, one of the few musicians who has been to all ten festivals – he says it is so his family can get a holiday each year (and this year, he had one of his sons with him). This concert was great fun, featuring Caribe in different settings – duet with a percussionist, then a piano trio with Paul Harrison, a quintet with Phil Bancroft and Ryan Quigley, building up by adding more musicians – Steele on trumpet, the visiting Jimmy Greene on tenor, Chris Grieve on trombone, until there were ten people on stage. The finale was a short suite Caribe had written specially for the ten piece, and it worked relly well; unfortunately, a lack of funding had stopped him extending the piece further (thank you, Scottish Arts Council!); but he’s writing a large suite for the SNJO, who will be touring it in the late autumn.

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I rushed from the bottling room to make the journey back to Bowmore for the next gig: Karlzon-Greene-Quigley quintet. Karlzon had been at the Bunnahabhain gig, too, watching from the side. So with nearly all the musicians having to make the same trip, I kind of knew I wouldn’t miss it; indeed, the minibus ferrying them back to Bowmore was two cars in front of me.

God, Ryan Quigley can play loud. I was sitting near the front, and I was worried I would have to move – worried because it was packed out. Again, I was seated so I couldn’t watch the sunset, which was even more spectacular. The music was great – energetic post-bop – and Karlzon was equally at home in this setting – he’s a good pianist. He wrote all the tunes – it was very much his gig. Gourlay was on bass – he seemed to open up as the weekend went on: he worked really well in this quintet – perhaps it was just because the lunchtime gig had been his first time with Colin Steele that he had seemed a little reticent.

I liked Jimmy Greene, as well. Based in New York, he plays the role of long tall tenor perfectly: he worked in lots of different formats.

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The first gig of Sunday was at Ardbeg: essentially a jam session featuring a front line of Greene, Quigley and Grieve, with Gourlay on bass, Milligan on piano and a drummer who I didn’t know and whose name I can’t remember… The drummer had been rather nondescript at the Mario Caribe Bunnahabhain gig, but he played much better this time around. I could have done with a bit more of Dave Milligan, but then I do really rate him as a pianist. This time around, I was right at the front, so I guess I hadn’t learned how not to damage my hearing with Quigley’s high notes. He was loud, too, but softened a bit after the first number – he came out all guns blazing, and maybe his hangover kicked in after that! This was a fun gig, but nothing to special – very much a jam session. Still, Quigley demonstrated a rather neat capacity for naming tunes – a number called “Duck Egg Blue” was based on several tunes from Kind of Blue… (Geddit?!)

At Ardbeg we were treated to some of the malt rather than Black Bottle – which made for a very nice dram with lunch!

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Another madcap dash from Port Ellen back to Bowmore for the last of Jakob Karlzon’s gigs, a trio with Gourlay and Ritchie. Stu Ritchie was on fine form, doing his fast-energetic-gentle thing, and sounding a lot like Elvin Jones (and if you’re going to sound like someone, Jones is definitely the drummer to sound like!). This setting really let Karlzon lay it down: again, it comprised of only his tunes, this time much more in the Jarrett/Evans/Svennson mould; and like Jarrett, he was signing tunelessly along at some points – very distracting! He dedicated one number to Esbjorn Svennson, a fellow Swede, explaining how shocked he still was. Now that Assembly Direct have discovered Karlzon, I expect he’ll find his way back to Scotland quite often.

Back to Laphroig for my final gig. I was hurrying because there was only 30 minutes between gigs, but not as fast as an old Peugeot that passed me (I had had to slow down when the car in front of me turned right into the airport). When I got to Laphroig, Stu Ritchie was setting up his drumkit – so it was he who sped past.

This gig was the Kevin McKenzie Quartet – and they were blistering. This was a really special concert. Bancroft was on tenor – looking ill but playing exceptionally (he is a very good saxophonist); I was glad to see him there as I had decided to go to the Ardbeg jam session instead of Bancroft’s own quartet, since I had seen them during the Edinburgh jazz festival a few weeks before. Caribe was on bass, really solid – he’s a very good player. Ritchie was also excellent – he must have been knackered – and succeeded in fitting into a completely different style of music. I really like Kevin McKenzie’s guitar playing – and his writing: this was great music. I am most familiar with his playing through Trio AAB, with Phil Bancroft on tenor and (twin?) brother Tom on drums – they play music that verges from the folky to the very wacky. This was a bit more down to earth, but still great music. It is coming out on CD soon – definitely one to get.

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I caught the ferry back to Kintyre the next day. It rained non-stop, and kept it up for thirty six hours. I ate lunch of fresh oysters – straight from the sea – and langoustine from the seafood cabin, warm in front of a log fire. Magic.

Colin Steele’s Stramash. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2008.

The third gig in a row, and it was back to the Hub to see Colin Steele’s Stramash. I have seen this band a few times before – Steele’s usual quintet augmented by a cello, a trio of fiddles (well, two fiddles and a viola on this occasion) and a piper (I think he was playing Northumbrian pipes and Scottish bagpipes). I last saw them in the jazz festival two years ago, and that was a cracking gig – so I had high expectations this time around.

I wasn’t disappointed: this was a great party of a concert. There is something so fun and life affirming about this music that it isn’t possible for me to hear it and not smile. It is just great.

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Still, they haven’t changed the music much in the last two years: they played more or less the same set, with arrangements of Steele’s quintet recordings for the expanded line up in the first half and then a suite of tunes written on or about Islay in the second. It was much the same band as well, although apparently a couple of the fiddlers and the piper were new – it was the piper’s first gig.

Phil Bancroft played tenor and soprano, and he and Steele provided most of the solos. Dave Milligan was superb on the piano, as always – he is understated and reverent, and plays just beautifully. (He also does all the arranging.) Aidan O’Donnell and Stu Ritchie made up the rest of the quintet, and they were as good as they had been with the Phil Bancroft Quartet the previous Saturday.

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But it is the extra textures provided by the strings and pipes that really make this band: they add an awful lot. Normally, I dislike strings with jazz; I think they really don’t mix well. This band is one of the exceptions. My own take on it is that both Steele and, more importantly, Milligan have spent a lot of time playing in folk bands as well as jazz, and the original music can be somewhat folk-infused. Adding the strings and the pipes brings this out, so that you get a true fusion of the two traditions.

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I think the original tunes are wonderful by themselves – in concert with the expanded band, they really come to life: this is jazz as ceilidh, joyous and mournful (often at the same time).

Steele said that Stramash have now recorded the Islay suite, and I can’t wait to hear the record, too.

Phil Bancroft Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2008.

My first gig of this year’s jazz festival was the Phil Bancroft Quartet at the Hub – indeed, all but one of the gigs I went to was at the Hub (in contrast to last year, where all but one was at the Spiegel Tent). It was a hot Saturday afternoon, and I didn’t feel like sitting in a darkened hall listening to jazz; but this quartet quickly blew the cobwebs away.

They played a varied set – Bancroft explained how he liked different styles of music to do different things emotionally – and the tunes spanned a dynamic range, drummer Stu Ritchie somehow achieving the wonderful feat of being energetic and driving whilst playing with care, precision and – best of all – quietly: Ritchie was excellent.

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But then this band has pedigree, with the wonderful Aidan O’Donnell on bass and Paul Harrison on piano. It was a fun gig – the music seemed to express Bancroft’s quirky humour – and the playing was excellent throughout.

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Bancroft said that someone had told him he looked like the recently discovered Radovan Karadzic, and we shouldn’t be surprised if UN forces burst in to drag him off to the Hague; but the person behind me said he looked rather more like Hagrid.

Chris Grieve’s “Islay Quartet”. Edinburgh, January 2008.

Last month, I went to see the Chris Grieve Islay Quartet at the Lot in Edinburgh. According to my sources, they played a storming gig at the Islay Jazz Festival last year (hence their name…). It was a while since I had been to a jazz gig – this was the first of the year; and I took my camera with me.

Here are some of the pictures I took – there are a lot more on flickr…. Mostly they are of Chris Grieve (trombone), Ryna Quigley (trumpet) and Phil bancroft (tenor and alto sax).

It was a great gig – Quigley and Bancroft were particularly storming.

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Colin Steele’s Stramash. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

Stramash is Steele’s regular jazz quintet augmented by three fiddlers, a cellist, and a piper; part jazz, then, and part something else. The fiddlers – and they were definitely fiddlers rather than violinists – and the piper give the lie: there is a lot of folk in trumpeter Steele’s new band.

The first set comprised of older numbers which had been re-arranged by pianist Dave Milligan for the larger ensemble. Whilst some jazz-with-strings becomes syrupy and anodyne, the fiddles gave a dynamic, rough edge, balanced by the softer cello. The pipes emphasised the celtic atmosphere of Steele’s tunes, which are firmly rooted in Scottish locations and tradition.

Steele’s trumpet took much more of a backseat role – at times he was simply conducting the strings – as he let the pipes and strings take the lead.

The second half of the concert comprised music composed specially for this band, inspired by a visit to Islay. The music invoked the island well, some tunes reflecting places (Loch Indaal, the Round Church) and others moods (“Farewell My Love” – a lament to leaving the island).

Phil Bancroft played some storming and lyrical tenor and soprano sax solos – in duet with Stu Ritchie’s excellent drums in “Louis’ First Gig” and “The Simpson’s Jig”, another in trio with Ritchie and Milligan, the drums and piano supporting Bancroft as he let fly.

Milligan was excellent throughout, playing some beautiful, mournful solos, and Aidan O’Donnell kept the whole unit together on the bass.

The fiddles knew how to swing, bringing a foot-stamping party spirit to some parts and a soft, Highland lament to others.

This was an energetic, entertaining concert, which brought the audience to its feet, hollering in the ceilidh spirit.