by Margaret Chrystall
IT’S taken around 14 years for the Black Isle Rock Orchestra (BIRO) – tagline "everybody’s favourite party band" – to get where they are today.
The five-piece can rescue a wedding, knows the secret of getting three generations up on the dancefloor side by side and can play a setlist from Pink to Pink Floyd.
They don’t have a band rider for venues, but do prefer a bit of hot water with any Pot Noodles kindly offered!
On their website, the grateful bride mentioned above says: "BIRO are a really great band. They saved my wedding dance when the original band failed to turn up. After some panicked phone calls BIRO showed up within an hour, got set up really quickly and then absolutely rocked the place. We had a brilliant night – thanks BIRO!"
Part superbeings, part musicians, the BIRO craic isn’t bad either.
You get an idea of what the banter must be like on the way to a BIRO gig, when you get drummer Norman MacLean, bassist George MacAskill and singer Gaile Dowie in one room.
It’s the arrival of Gaile that has made the biggest difference to the band, reckons founder member Norman.
"The potential offered by a female singer gave us the chance to try some different material."
Gaile whispers with a twinkle in her eye: "They wanted some talent in the band …!"
In 2012, the band had been looking for a new singer and also to add a keyboard-player into the line-up.
They managed to persuade keyboardist Frazer Mackenzie to come out of retirement, though he had played live for years before that.
Gaile had been singing in her brother-in-law’s band in Edinburgh before moving north.
She said: "I’d done a bit of everything previously including doing backing for a Ramones and Blondie tribute band.
"My brother-in-law’d asked me and my sister to step in at a Christmas gig as dancers in these skimpy Santa outfits. We’d a couple of wines and asked for some mikes. He said ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea’, but we got them and in the first five minutes he’d turned my sister’s off, but said ‘I’ll leave yours on’, so it started out like that."
Gaile heard BIRO wanted a singer from Inverness promoter Steve Robertson.
"I’m a hairdresser in town and Steve came in and was asking me if I’d been doing much singing?. Then I was still travelling up and down to Edinburgh and I said ‘It’s not going to work’.
"I’d spoken to the band in Edinburgh after doing a couple of gigs, but it wasn’t working, it was too much hassle. Steve told me about BIRO looking for a singer.
Gaile looks at Norman: "You’d originally asked for ‘a guy who played guitar’ and I phoned and said ‘I’m a woman and can’t play guitar’. Norman said ‘Well, come along anyway!’
Gaile laughed: "I took my friend to the audition with me for moral support because they’d said ‘Come to our garage in the middle of the woods at Muir of Ord!’.
"But they gave me a call back a few weeks later and I went back again for a second audition.
"And I’ve regretted every minute since!" joked Gaile.
Norman is now the only member of the band who lives on the Black Isle – and the band’s profile has been changing in other ways too.
"He said: "Before it was straight down the middle rocky stuff, but with Gaile and keyboards, we can do just about whatever we want now, rock, pop, funk and soul.
"This year it’s the busiest we’ve ever been and the diary is almost full."
They are their own roadies – though in theory Gaile should score there.
She laughs: "Tell them to stop buying stuff! I’ve got a mike, that’s it!"
Times may have moved on, but the amount of equipment the band has to lug in and out of venues for every gig, makes top of their wishlist a roadie to help at the end of the night!
Drummer Norman laughed: "George has scored big, he’s got a lightweight compact amp, but Frazer has a big Rick Wakeman-style set-up ... and you can’t make drums smaller!"
The setlist has changed a lot – 80 per cent, says Norman – since Gaile and Frazer have joined the line-up.
Norman said: "Our selection process is that we all choose a few things we think would be good and then we get together and listen. We usually spend a few weeks listening to the songs and working them out for us before we add anything into the set."
Gaile laughed: "In the past, I’ve gone ‘I’m not singing that!’ and then over time realised that I really like it!
Norman added: "There’s a fine line, you’ve obviously got to like the tune, and enjoy it – but you’ve also got to put yourself in the middle of the dancefloor and hope that 200 people are going to want to dance to it!
"That’s the main factor. So you have a few things to take into account.
"If we’ve picked 12 songs – and get four new ones to play out of them, that’s pretty much normal."
George said: "We have to live with them for a while ...!"
And if Highway To Hell is surefire floor-filler for BIRO, Sweet Home Alabama is the only song guaranteed to push Norman over the edge.
"We thrashed it to death for years!" he laughs.
Gaile commented: "Highway To Hell is one of these songs you can play at a wedding to grannies to children and young teenagers who maybe haven’t heard half our other stuff.
"But when Highway To Hell starts, they all know it and all the grannies are up off their seats. And you think ‘Should we do this at a wedding, really?’. But that’s what gets them up!
Bassist George added: "So does Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, that’s down to Glee.
Gaile said: "And when we do Blondie’s One Way Or Another – now One Direction do it too. So the dads know it from Blondie, the kids from One Direction – and it’s a song they can all sing along with."
Gaile found the travelling and performing regularly with BIRO took a little period of adjustment at first.
She said: "I’ve got to admit, for the first six months to a year, I found it quite hard because I just wasn’t used to it.
"With the other band I’d been with, it had just been one gig every three months.
"After coming in from a gig, you’re buzzing – I find that.
"It’s hard to go straight to sleep, you tend to come in, have a cup of tea and wind down, so it can be the back of three in the morning before you’re ready to go to sleep. And then you’re back up again at six!"
But when it came to joining the boys, Gaile found it pretty painless.
"There are certain things you have to put up with – strong aftershave in the van, that’s one!
"I think it must have been a bit different for the guys, not knowing what their boundaries were.
Norman laughed: "We just decided there wouldn’t be any boundaries – as normal!"
Dates coming up include a charity fundraiser for Parkinson’s Disease including dinner at the Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness, tonight (Friday) (tickets £55 and a few seats available as we went to press, go to: facebook.com/longstraightwalk). BIRO will also be playing at Tain Gala Marquee Dance (next Friday, July 4); The Room, Inverness (Friday, July 25); Hopeman Gala Marquee Dance (Saturday, July 26); Bandstand, Nairn, (Friday, August 1); Harley Davidson Rally, Aviemore (Saturday, August 23); The Room, Inverness (Friday, August 29) and the Crofter Bar, Fort William (Saturday, August 30).
For the full gig list: www.blackislerockorchestra.com