IT’S all go these days for Lewis singer Alyth McCormack, who now lives in Dublin and has been busy touring and recording – so her gig at An Lanntair is a welcome opportunity to touch down on home soil and catch up with family and friends.
IT was also, as she admitted beforehand, “terrifying”.
For Alyth, there is more pressure performing solo in front of a few hundred people in Stornoway than there is performing with the likes of The Chieftains in front of thousands in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
But it is also, of course, uniquely special – so much so that Alyth plans to release a select recording of the concert later this year as a ‘live’ album.
Although she has appeared on more than 20 albums, this will be Alyth’s first live album. Indeed, it will be only her third solo album, although she has also just recorded a duo album with Irish harpist and singer Triona Marshall.
Triona and Alyth both perform alongside Irish traditional music gods The Chieftains so a project together was a natural next step.
Entitled Red and Gold, their album is due for release in June and was recorded in Aberdeenshire in January between Alyth’s Celtic Connections commitments with The Step Crew and her fourth annual American tour with The Chieftains.
Alyth’s last album, People Like Me, was released in February 2009 and was very well received – online folk and roots music hub Spiral Earth called it “a dose of unadulterated music magic” – so there will be a lot of interest in her coming albums.
However, her priority for the An Lanntair show was the concert itself. She said: “If we get a good album out of it, that will be a bonus. Our primary aim is to put on a good show.”
Joining Alyth in Stornoway will be her own band. They are Brian McAlpine of Session A9, on piano and accordian; Capercailie’s Ewen Vernal on double bass; Innes Watson of The Treacherous Orchestra on guitar and fiddle; and, last but not least, Noel Eccles – of Moving Hearts fame and Mr Alyth McCormack himself – on percussion. Playing with them in An Lanntair is, for Alyth, “an ideal scenario”.
She said: “It’s a great venue; I know all the staff so well; and I trust so much the musicians that are going to be there. I absolutely know that we’ll be looked after and An Lanntair is a really lovely venue to sing in.”
Singing to a home crowd is another issue, though. “It’s terrifying,” admitted Alyth, “because I can’t pretend to be anything I’m not. People know me. I hope that by that point we’ll be so rehearsed that it will just happen.”
The concert itself is to be “an overview” of all the different work Alyth has done. She planned to include some new songs as well as some pieces from her duo album with Triona, whose role was to be filled in Stornoway by talented local teenager Mischa Macpherson.
There were also to be pieces from her work with The Chieftains, The Step Crew – a group of high-octane musicians and dancers from America and Canada – and The Global Music Foundation. They are a group of musicians from all over the world who come together to teach and perform. And just one week before her show in Stornoway, Alyth was with them in Spain.
Before that, she had spent five weeks in America and Canada with The Chieftains. Their 22-date tour began in Troy, New York, and ended this year in Toronto – on St Patrick’s Day, as it does every year.
Alyth said: “It was the best tour that I’ve done with them but it was also the most difficult, from the point of view that we didn’t have a day off at all. We’d have a day off, which would be a travel day, which could be two flights and a drive. We did two TV shows and on those days we also had gigs. On the last week of the tour, we did eight shows back to back. There is so much travelling. The gigs are great and the venues are great – but you do get tired.”
Alyth looks to Chieftains founder member Paddy Moloney for lessons in staying power: “If Paddy can do it at 72 then the rest of us shouldn’t stay up so long at the bar.” She added: “I did feel a bit shell-shocked when I came back from that Chieftains tour. When you’ve been away on tour and come back you think, ‘oh, what will I do with myself? What do I do now?”
An American tour with The Chieftains is a big affair, although some of their biggest venues, such as Carnegie Hall, were missed out this year in anticipation of next year’s 50th Anniversary tour.
As Alyth said: “If Americans are going to go out in and see an Irish act in the run-up to St Patrick’s Day, then they’ll go and see The Chieftains.”
Touring under the auspices of such a huge band makes for quite a different experience to gigging solo: “There isn’t the same pressure if I’m doing a gig with The Chieftains because its their gig, obviously. I can relax a bit. I like doing my own gigs but I also like the variety of work that comes from working with different bands.”
Alyth certainly isn’t short on variety. The Chieftains’ touring schedule gears up again at the end of May, beginning in Ireland and taking in various festivals including Lorient. Then, in June, Alyth will be heading back to America again – this time with The Step Crew.
The Global Music Foundation also provide something different in the form of their unique and intensely rich cultural and music experience. Alyth has been working with the foundation – who combine performing with educational projects – for nearly two years now and is just back from Sitges near Barcelona.
She was there to perform as part of the Open Secrets project, which showcases two Catalan poets alongside the foundation’s musicians and singers. An album from that project was also recorded in January – in Italy – and is due for release imminently.
Alyth said: “The thing about the foundation is that people come from all over the world and perform together. It’s really interesting actually. The common language is music. I’m singing two songs in English but I’m also singing two songs in Gaelic, and they had never heard Gaelic before.
“The lovely thing about them is that because they are such good musicians, and so respectful, they give me the space to do what I want to do. Open Secrets is my first album with them – they do different projects with various musicians – and it’s actually very beautiful. It’s quite mellow. It’s jazz but not crazy jazz. It’s the kind of music you can just sit and listen to.”
Music is not the only string to Alyth’s bow, of course. She can also act and was doing Sleeping Beauty with the famous Dundee Rep theatre company over pantomime season. It was 12 shows a week for 11 weeks.
“It was brilliant but it was hard work. You have no time to do anything apart from eat, work, sleep. That finished on the 8th January and I went home on the 9th. I hadn’t seen my husband for a whiley.” She added: “I think our last stint apart was five weeks. We’ve had a lot of that over the last while. It’s been a bit difficult.”
A few days at home in Stornoway with her husband and the rest of her trusted band, in among all that madness and mayhem. No wonder Mrs Eccles was looking forward to it.
Alyth McCormack is at An Lanntair, Stornoway, on 30 April 2011.
© Katie Laing, 2011