Phil Cunningham and Red Hot Chilli Pipers headline Speyfest 25 opening night

A REAL Feel-Good Friday heralded the return of Speyfest.

James Harper of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Photo: Daniel Forsyth

The traditional Scottish folk festival has started well.

Speyfest 25 – celebrating the silver anniversary of the Fochabers festival – was presented on opening night by Phil Cunningham and friends, and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers who brought down the marquee with a sensational set at The Stomp.

Phil Cunningham was missing his 35-year-old partner Aly Bain as the latter underwent back surgery earlier in the week.

Phil Cunningham's set was peppered with a lot of humor.  Photo: Daniel Forsyth
Phil Cunningham’s set was peppered with a lot of humor. Photo: Daniel Forsyth

A quickly assembled trio was formed with ex-Battlefield Band fiddler John McCusker and 11th-hour recruited guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Toby Shaer, who flew north from Essex.

“When you have people of that level around you, it’s great,” Phil said.

The three reunited for the first time on Thursday evening.

“I picked up Toby from the airport yesterday afternoon and we rehearsed at my house for three hours. John and I had done a few hours of rehearsal earlier in the week.

“It all happened pretty quickly.”

Aly had hoped to play but his surgeon advised him not to make the trip to Fochabers.

“I couldn’t be happier with what happened tonight,” added Phil. “We had a very good reaction from the public.

“There would be no way to replicate what Aly and I are doing because he’s 35, so I thought rather than trying to make a bad line out of it, we’d try to do something different. ‘a little different.”

Local favorites Tour Bus Fortune were first on the main stage for the Stomp.

Ian Grigor, singer and violinist, said: “We tried to get the crowd moving and I hope we did. I was here first year with James (Alexander). I think I missed one when I was traveling.

“There was a bit of a cloud this year with the absence of James, but he would have liked it to continue, and the committee did a great job. They took the bull by the horns.”

Tour Bus Fortune have been playing together for over a decade and are a regular at the festival.

“Speyfest have been very supportive of us and given us seats in the beer tent and then given us the opportunity to play on the main stage. We like to do our part for the festival.”

The Milne’s High Fiddlers had opened the evening concert and they were followed by the Claire Hastings Band.

Clare said: “It was such a great atmosphere and lovely crowd. We were supposed to be here two years ago but missed out due to Covid so it’s good to finally get there.

“I have a little girl now who is one, so I don’t get to play a lot, so being here tonight was a real treat for me.

“It’s nice when I can take her to gigs, but tonight was just a bit far to take her from Glasgow.

“I remember the last time I played here the crowd was really warm and welcoming, and a big crowd of singers too.”

The Chilli Pipers hour-long set was electric and out of this world.

Energy filled the marquee as they rode through classic tracks, with three pipers at the heart of the performance.

One of them, James Harper, has been a member of the group for four years since graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Scotland.

He said: “It was amazing. I came to Speysfest even before I was in the Chilli Pipers as a fan. My grandmother and grandfather had a caravan nearby and we came in 2014 or 2015, and I first played it in 2018 with my friend’s band and now I’m back here in 2022 with the Chilli.

“Given everything that’s happened with Covid and two years off, it’s just amazing to play in front of your own people – people who are buzzing with Scottish music. There’s such a rich culture of Scottish and even Irish heritage here.

“If you love Scottish music, this is home to anyone involved in the scene.

“The tent was absolutely bouncing and it was really special, and it’s great to be back.

“I was fresh out of college and started touring the world with the Chilli. It’s really humbling to come back to places like Speyfest where everyone knows your name, knows your the band and the songs. It’s like being at home.”

Saturday at Speyfest, violinist Duncan Chisholm, Colin Campbell and friends, Rura and the Elephant Sessions.

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Floyd N. Morlan