Guest Spot – Silly Wizzard: The Parish of Dunkeld

Hi Everyone

Here’s one from the fantastic Silly Wizard; The Parish of Dunkeld, live from Boston, USA in 1986.

Silly Wizard are one of the many great bands who’s music has filled our home for as long as I can remember, I would have loved to have been around to watch them perform live. Over to Ian to tell you more…

Hi Folks


Here is something very different. It is not only superb music, it is also unique, nostalgic, and a masterclass from 1986 of a “live on tour” performance in Boston, USA by, to my mind, the best folk band ever to come out of Scotland, “Silly Wizard”.

I have been asked to write these lines by no less a figure than founder member, Gordon Jones (older brother of Brian Jones) and feel honoured to have been entrusted with this task. If I am being truthful it is a daunting prospect. The facts are all set out on the web. Wikipedia gives you the history, the line-ups, and the dates, and the band’s own website also has a more personalised biography, plus a rich variety of still obtainable, and memorable, recordings for sale.

There have already been thousands of words written about them during, and after, their remarkable 18-year career together (1970-1988). I was fortunate to see them perform several times during their heyday in the 1970’s and 1980’s and that was worth more to me than several volumes of narrative. Those nights still echo round my head, and in my mind’s eye, I can still see the fiendish, fluid, sometimes frantic, but always measured, fiddle playing of the boy genius that was Johnny Cunningham (fiddle, viola, mandolin), who was later joined by his equally talented brother Phil Cunningham, a brilliant accordion player. The solid foundation that “kept the ship on course” was provided by Gordon Jones, the rhythm engine room on guitar. His vocals and bodhran playing were also a major contribution to the band’s overall sound. His great friend, who was also there at the beginning, Bob Thomas, one of the finest acoustic guitarists of his generation, wove intricate patterns around Gordon’s solid rhythms, and had a lovely touch, and a great feel for the music. When Bob left the band (1978), Gordon‘s, “signature, percussive guitar playing” (brother Brian’s description), took on even more significance, although his bodhran playing continued to excel, and drive the band’s tune sets. Over the years, Gordan became one of the best exponents of this surprisingly difficult percussion instrument, and his playing, as with his guitar, certainly helped to drive the band along in many of their memorable instrumentals.

A heady mixture, with those already mentioned above, the final piece of the jigsaw came with their talismanic lead singer, Andy M. Stewart. Surely, one of the finest vocalists on the Scottish traditional music scene, Andy also turned out to be one of the best songwriters of his generation too. He had the incredible ability to write a new song and make it sound traditional. Who could ever forget, “Golden, Golden”, “The Ramblin ‘Rover”, “The Queen of Argyll” and “Lovers Heart”, among the many Stewart originals. In praising his writing talents, we must also not forget that he was an exceptional tenor banjo player, who also added tin whistles to the band’s already full sound, when required.

Wikipedia lists 13 band members over the years, but it is the “Wizards” above, plus Martin Hadden (bass, guitar, and piano) whom I recall on those wonderful nights. There are many bands who can create perfect music, given studio conditions and the ability for re-takes and multi-tracking and mixing, but, ask them to produce this in live performance and they would look askance at you if you took their “backing tracks” off them before they went on stage. Not so, Silly Wizard, they were very much a WYSIWYG band, to use 21st century parlance, and they always produced the goods. They were simply the best “live” band of their generation in the musical genre they had chosen to grace. When the adrenalin was pumping (both on stage and off it) the evening usually ended in a crescendo of feats of incredible, instrumental agility with barely a note out of place.

After all that build up, the song, seems almost immaterial, but for those song and tune collectors among you, “The Parish of Dunkeld”, was first published in 1824 by James Maidment, and the tune that follows, “The Curlew”, was written by piper, Donald McPherson, a former Boys Brigade musician, who died at the grand old age of 89 in 2012. In this instance, it is typical of, the band’s mischievous, tongue-in-cheek humour. “The Parish of Dunkeld” does not sound the most reverent of places but, like many of their songs, it provides the launch pad for those brilliant instrumental breaks.

Now, let me take you back to a packed Springfield Hall, Boston. Silly Wizard are on stage and it is the last concert of their American tour on a cold November evening in 1986. The atmosphere is almost tangible with the warmth and feel-good factor generated by the humour, the interplay, and the sheer musical brilliance.

It is time for you to sit back and listen, for yourself, to these Scottish magicians and, like they did to me over 40 years ago, let them put a spell on you.

Ian Chesterman

Thanks Ian. If you want to hear any more tracks from this brilliant concert please let us know.

Hope you enjoy.

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Samantha Proctor

Keeping Folk up to Date