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Heading West: A Story About a Band Called Shooglenifty review – fond tribute to a charismatic fiddler | Movies

The name of this (currently) seven-piece Scottish folk band was never meant to be permanent. In 1990 they were busking in Madrid when a bar owner offered them a gig; they just needed a name for the poster. The guitarist came up with Shooglenifty – a placeholder until something better came along.

Anyway, that’s how the story goes. It’s remembered in this documentary made after the death in 2016 of the group’s frontman and fiddler Angus G Grant from throat cancer at just 49. In photos and footage from the early days, he had it all: the charisma and the good looks. He performed topless, long hair pulled up into a bun, with an intense, barefoot mystical vibe, as if he were let into the mysteries that the rest of the world could only guess at.

The film opens with his bandmates remembering Grant, in interviews recorded before a tribute concert in Glasgow in 2017 – their grief still fresh and raw. We learn that he liked a party; he was a free spirit and lived alone, didn’t have a phone or computer. He was quite successful in his love life, says the band’s banjo player carefully. His appeal to the opposite sex is confirmed by Laura, a young fiddler in her 20s who couldn’t take her eyes off him when they played together. “He was this old scraggly man but I pure fancied him,” she grins. And yet Grant remains somehow elusive. In photos, he evades the camera’s gaze, always wearing sunglasses or looking off to one side.

Shooglenifty played their first gigs in a basement bar on the Cowgate in Edinburgh. Their style fused Scottish folk with everything from electronica to alt rock, and they became part of the “acid croft” scene, playing Glastonbury and Womad. It’s all fondly remembered here – though the second half of the film drifts a little, shot as the band travel to Spain and India to record new material, and shop around for a fiddler to replace Grant.

Heading West: A Story About a Band Called Shooglenifty is released on 3 February.

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash