Andy M Stewart : One (Un)Silly Wizard 

One (Un)Silly Wizard

by Laurie Devine, 
Dirty Linen DL38, August 1991 

"Would you like your son to be a musician when he grows up?" I asked.

Many fathers dismiss the question out of hand, but the stock answer would be, "he can do whatever he wishes."

"I think it would be nice if he had a love for music. But having gone through the kind of past years of this kind of work, and the risk involved to oneself lacking any kind of security, no. I wouldn't see that as the first thing I would want him to do. It's too hard a way of life...it's possible to love the music without climbing into a transit van and driving to Southampton."

It has been a hard life for Andy. It has also been a quagmire of contradictions. Andy was faced at a young age with the complexities of his home and culture. He was raised along the Borders, in the town of Blairgowrie. It has proven a rich source for his material and an understanding of his own background. Songs like "The Parish of Dunkeld," incorporate many of these locations.

It was more than the homeland alone which provoked his adventures in music.

"I think that it's the general love of traditional music, interest in songs, and interest in things, not just Scottish music; certainly a big interest in Irish music and songs, which accounts for my interest, I think, across the board...There was always that kind of thing. It was never a very formal thing. My family, my immediate family, didn't have very much to do with any folk revival or anything like that."

Once the seeds were sown in his childhood, they were fertilized in an ideal place. Blairgowrie High School in the 1960's-early 70's served as home to its own folk club, featuring their own home band- Andy M. Stewart, Dougie MacLean, Martin Hadden and Kenny Hadden. Dubbed "Puddock's Well," the lads also served as the house band for the local folk club, and wandered around the Highlands gigging wherever possible.

Upon release from high school, the band continued intermittently as the members tried to work fulltime and perform on demand. "That was great fun. We were all working and trying to fit in the band at the same time, coming home from work and jumping in the van and barrelling off to Aberdeen to play a gig, then thundering back in the middle of the .night and getting up and going to work. So once some people were daft enough to book us, it was quite difficult to actually fulfill the bookings."

Around this same time, Silly Wizard was beginning to earn some recognition in the Highlands of Scotland. Originally formed by Gordon Jones, John Cunningham, and Bob Thomas, various people had come and gone during the band's beginning. Puddock's Well had opened for them at Blairgowrie and the musicians from both bands hit it off. When Puddock's Well decided the hassles of the schedule and lifestyle were a bit too much, and called it quits, the Wizard sent Andy a telegram. They needed a vocalist. That was it.

To the believers, Silly Wizard is an entity. It is hard to visualize any of its members performing elsewhere, though they obviously have done this successfully. Still, Andy Stewart was its voice and for 12 years Silly Wizard toured the world. Andy's organization and assertiveness might have been its voice in another way.

Their first American tour featured house concerts and small gigs. It was a sharp contrast to their farewell tour in 1988, which featured sell-out crowds and a Green Linnet video, which Andy produced.

All bands have personal struggles, but the Wizard was endowed with five individually remarkable human beings. They were musically gifted, but they were also intellectually potent.

Working with Silly Wizard? Andy described it thus: "Oh, it was going constantly. From the minute you got into the van basically to travel somewhere it was just...wind-ups, off- the-wall comments, jokes, stories and red herrings and false trails. It was great stuff!"

After spending any time with Andy, you note the quickness of his mind. You share a story innocently with him and five days later or five months later it will appear on stage-- slightly enhanced, but certainly with enough truth and memory to be recognizable. It will turn from a simple observation by you, to one of universal significance encompassed by his mind.

All of Silly Wizard's members share this ability to some extent, and it became evident and a feature of their show. If audiences were absolutely dazzled by Andy's vocals, and Phil and Johnny's flashy instrumental sets, they were won by the interplay and humor--at times contrived, but at times spontaneous.

What are his favorite kinds of audiences?

"Bright ones," was the reply without hesitation. "I like the ones who are up to have a good time and realize they're part of it, and realize that without their help we're going nowhere, and they join right in and get stuck into the evening."

There is a standing Andy Stewart joke about people who are not high on the food chain. Those who aren't never grasp the point at all. Those who are will savor the twist of his mind.

Andy is the ultimate performer, a combination actor, poet, songwriter, comedian and singer. One critic described the character of his voice as one which could "draw tears from a rock."

Sweet ballads were Andy Stewart's original role with Silly Wizard. But artistry intervened and with some experiments like, "The Valley of Strathmore," on So Many Partings, the band began to realize that they could write revival songs which emulated--even perfected-- the old songs. They could enhance them and include the emotions they preferred. Andy became the songwriter, and many of his songs are now being performed internationally. "Ramblin' Rover," a spoof on the lifestyle and alcoholism of Scotland, has virtually become a folk song in its own right. The comedic side began to emerge, perhaps with "Ramblin' Rover," but more subtly, the humor has seeped into serious songs--often in the form of sarcasm or irony. It is a part of an evolved sophistication. On the surface, "If I Never Spend a Morning Without You" (from At It Again, recorded with Manus Lunny) is a simple love song. A second levelreveals it to be about a love for land and home. Even farther is a cry about what we value.

The album's next track clashes with that in the ironic "Monday Morning." It's the horror of the real work world in Scotland, compelling men to beg for employment, just to exist, and then be grateful for it; the ultimate form of emasculation perhaps, or at least a loss of national pride.

Added to all of his other abilities, and often underestimated by Andy himself, are his banjo and mandolin skills. With the band, he often served as the foil for the Cunningham brothers' instrumental flairs. In many of the sets, notably those which appear on Golden, Golden , he comes across with some impressive licks. However, during his more recent tours with Manus, he has failed to bring any instrument except a rarely employed guitar. I asked him if he would be bringing any instruments for his forthcoming tour with Manus.

"I don't really think that I feel comfortable about being a banjo soloist. I don't think I'm confident enough to go it as a solo player. I play the banjo at home seriously at ceilidhs and at sessions and that suits me just as well. There are many finer players that deserve to be heard."

A question of identity arises with this multiplicity of abilities: Is he prinicipally a songwriter or a singer?

"Oh, I don't actually regard myself (in a particular way). I don't actually think like that. I'd say I'd probably think of myself more as a singer, just because I've done more singing than I have songwriting.

So what is Andy doing now? After a few years of tours with Manus Lunny, particularly in America and Germany, he hasn't been seen around much. He seldom performs in Britain. There have been the two album releases: At It Again (Green Linnet, 1990) and Songs of Robert Burns (Wondertut, Germany, 1990, Green Linnet , US 1991).

While he is at home between tours, some of his time is spent doing light production for TV and film companies in Scotland. It is a secondary career which enables him to still be creative, but fill in some of his spare time while sticking close to home and, yes, to be the father he wishes. "I get to stay home. I get to go and stay in nice hotels in the Highlands, and they pick up the tab, and then I come home after a couple of days. It's kind of challenging and it's a wee bit creative, so it's okay. But what it does is pay the bills, and it makes it unnecessary for me to be in some far-flung place that I don't want to be."

He is definitely not complaining about far-flung places, but he feels that most of the time for that is past.

"When I have a tour booked, I will go into it whole-heartedly. Apart from normal feelings of homesickness..I enjoyed the different parts of the United States. What a treat to be able to go there, to all of these great places that I'd never be able to afford to go to...you couldn't go in a lifetime. But the time for constant touring is past, and I get a lot of pleasure out of doing other things. I am lucky to have another way to earn a living...and (it's impossible) to try to hold together a marriage, to rear a family, and find yourself away for 10 months a year. It would make me very sad to have to try and do it."

Even though Manus is committed to his work with Capercaillie, he and Andy will still be doing a US tour in March in support of the American release of The Songs of Robert Burns on Green Linnet. They will also be performing several new songs--Stewart originals and traditionals. Some of these will undoubtedly show up on a new solo album that Andy plans to record in early summer. Hopefully the release of that album will coincide with another US tour in late 1992.

Andy has done some one-off gigs with Martin Hadden in Holland and just completed a four-week tour of concerts in 1200-3000 seat halls, primarily in West Germany. The tour, billed as the "Jubilee Irish Folk Festival Tour," included Andy, paired up with Patrick Street's Gerry O'Beirne, sharing the bill with Altan and the band Crann.

Rumors have proliferated the Silly Wizard will tour again, maybe a reunion in America. These rumors seem to revolve around a possibility of Johnny Cunningham being available in 1993. Certainly all the band members could cash in financially on their work in the past.

Andy denies it. "No it would be impossible to recapture the spirit that was there. Like I said, when we sang our last song, there was no doubt on anyone's mind that that was the end. We did the biggest tour ever, and we had the most fun ever, and then we walked away from it."

"But it was quite a moving thing from the point of view that if you were in a band and it just sort of disintegrated and everybody sort of wandered away and there was never a formal ending, then it would just dissipate some way in the ether of your life. When you know that that is the end, and we all knew it was the end of the end of the end, then when the last song was played, yes, it was quite something."

But surely he realizes that the rumors are rampant...

"Great," he replied with a half-grin. "You do also realize that I'm a great man for spoofing."

It was the same kind of non-answer that Phil Cunningham gave to the same question a year ago.

Andy Stewart is definitely not a saint. He is a very human person whose struggles have manifested themselves in his songwriting, his stage performance, his life, and his family.

So how does he define success?

He struggled for an answer. "I suppose I'd like a legacy really of just being remembered fondly by whomever, my friends and the folk I left behind. It would be nice for them to remember me in a positive way."

He hesitated, then added, "It would be nice for my songs to survive. It would be nice for my family. I'd like them to last.”

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