Andy M Stewart
Andy M Stewart, who has died after a long period of ill-health, was one of the greatest singers in Scottish music. Known to admirers across the world simply as “Andy M”, the Perthshire-born Stewart had a voice as instantly recognisable as his moniker and while he used the initial of his middle name (Michael) to distinguish himself from the Scottish entertainer Andy Stewart, he was no mean entertainer himself.
As the trail-blazing Scottish folk group Silly Wizard won the hearts of audiences at home and abroad, especially in the U.S., they were unlikely to run short of onstage patter, with the Cunningham brothers, Johnny and Phil, pulling legs to Olympic standard. Stewart’s introductions, however, could be the most devastatingly humorous of them all. He had a talent for the scalpel sharp bon mot, something that doubtless came in useful as the Wizard’s internal wind-ups carried on through their every waking hour. His comic timing was also very apparent in his singing of songs such as The Errant Apprentice in later years.
Although his immediate family, he once said, weren’t particularly interested in the folk revival, Stewart came from a culture that had preserved the Scottish tradition for generations and the feeling for Scottish music he conveyed in his singing was almost palpable. At school in Blairgowrie he fell in with Dougie Maclean, who sang and played guitar and fiddle, guitarist Ewen Sutherland, and the Hadden brothers, Kenny and Martin. They formed Puddock’s Well, with Stewart on vocals, banjo and mandolin, and became the house band, and organising committee, at Blairgowrie Folk Club before branching out to play at other folk clubs and festivals across Scotland, often returning home in time to get up for work.
When Silly Wizard came to play in Blairgowrie and Puddock’s Well were the opening act, the two bands got on famously. Stewart, Martin Hadden (bass guitar) and, more briefly, Maclean, all ended up joining founder Gordon Jones in Silly Wizard, who had built a reputation in the early 1970s for high tempo, exciting tunes, initially courtesy of their schoolboy fiddler, Johnny Cunningham. When a series of personnel changes left them without a singer, they got in touch with the one they’d heard with Puddock’s Well.
Stewart brought to the band natural frontman skills as well as a magnificent tone and huge warmth of feeling for the songs he sang. As an interpreter of traditional songs and the words of Robert Burns, he had few equals then or since. He also wrote songs in the style of the tradition, celebrating locales near where he’d grown up such as The Parish of Dunkeld and The Valley of Strathmore.
With Stewart aboard, Silly Wizard presented a complete package of music, fun, excitement and historical reference. It was an eminently exportable package, as they discovered when an American woman approached them after a gig at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and asked for their contact details. Stewart felt sure nothing would come of this but a few weeks later they were booked for Philadelphia Folk Festival, a twenty minute spot that opened the door to America.
Their Live Again CD, originally recorded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1983 and remastered and reissued in 2012, gives a great example of what audiences were treated to from the time Stewart joined Silly Wizard in 1976 to their last concert together in 1988. It’s both a riot and a feast, with Stewart in superb voice. Following that last concert, Stewart felt the band had exhausted all possibilities, although Celtic Connections would go on to stage a couple of reunions.
When a duo tour Stewart and Phil Cunningham planned in 1985 was threatened with cancellation after Cunningham was involved in a car accident, Manus Lunny, guitarist and bouzouki player with Moving Hearts and Capercaillie, stepped in. This led to albums including Dublin Lady and At It Again, on which Stewart sang of dreading Monday mornings as someone who had carried “the piece bag and the flask” (post-Silly Wizard he worked as a technician in television production). As Lunny became busier with Capercaillie, Stewart found another soul mate in another Irish guitarist, Gerry O’Beirne, and the two continued to tour until Stewart’s health began to decline in 2011.
Failed spinal surgery in 2013 left him paralysed from the chest down and he survived further emergency surgery in September 2014 only to suffer a stroke in early December 2015 followed by pneumonia. He leaves many magical moments in the memories of those who witnessed him in concert and a recorded output that serves his musical legacy handsomely. He’s survived by his sister, Angela, his wife, Kathy and son, Donald.
Andy M Stewart, singer and songwriter, born September 8, 1952; died December 27, 2015.
From The Herald, January 1, 2016