Thursday morning brought day one of the 33rd Orkney Folk Festival – it was clear the pulse was rising in the winding streets of Stromness. An evident stir of anticipation heralded our arrival in West-Mainland town, which was undergoing its annual transformation into the heart of the festival. The weekend’s events expand outward from the Stromness Hotel, a venue overlooking the harbour which houses the best of sessions and concerts and provides temporary home to a haul of visiting artistes, who this year were splendidly diverse and acclaimed in their own right.
The Orkney festival brings a distinctively diverse international line-up including, this year, the Hot Seats based in Richmond, Virginia; the familiar Scandinavian faces of Nordic Fiddlers Bloc and Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys of Prince Edward Island. Lesser travelled acts were of equal appeal including Sharon Shannon, Seth Lakeman, the Mike Vass Trio, Tim Edey, Dallahan, Claire Hastings and Barrule – to name but a few. The programme was also steeped in home-grown music, with old and new local talent including The Wrigley Sisters, The Chair, Billy Jolly, Fara and the most recent addition to the Orkney cast, Gnoss. As remarked upon by artistic director, Bob Gibbon, prominent at this year’s festival was that magical and spontaneous integration of visitors and locals –a couple of Gordie MacKeeman’s Rhythm Boys were caught taking a shift on the bass for long established local band, the Birsay Boys, during their traditional twelve hour performance on Sunday. Further unscheduled collaboration broke out aboard a local boat providing an emergency taxi to Sanday for visiting artists who had missed the ferry. In an account the Hot Seats remarked that ‘the Linties began singing old songs in order to stave off nausea, and it turned into one of the most spontaneous and organic concerts that we have ever witnessed’. Memorable for local youngsters will be the moment Sharon Shannon invited them to spark up some tunes during a spot of free time on Saturday.
The stages were to be found within and beyond the festival core in Stromness; on the mainland and the outer isles, in large arenas such as the Pickaquoy Centre and St Magnus Cathedral and in more intimate settings including the Wrigley sisters’ café – The Reel – and the Orkney Brewery.
Day 1 – Thursday 21st May
The opening night boasted five concerts, all in different parishes, and two late night clubs back in Stromness – with an ambitious must-see wish list this was initially an alarming prospect. Orkney clings on to its artists for the entirety of the weekend, however, making it possible to see a little bit of nearly everyone without a tardis or a speeding ticket. I apologise to the few who I was unable to catch.
Around 10.30pm on Thursday night, those flooding into the Stromness Hotel from the various opening concerts were faced by a dilemma, a boisterous session, hosted by newly arrived artists was well fired up to the right in the bar and to the left was the door to the first of the intimate late night festival club concerts.
It’s a daunting prospect for any soloist to open a night of renowned, quality bands; local singer Bruce Mainland made a perfect job in the festival club, gently captivating his audience with thought provoking lyrics, singing a number of songs from debut album Lang Road Doon.
Immediately engaging in playful comparison between their home, the Isle of Man and Orkney, Barrule were next on stage and won over both the locals and visitors with witty tales of ferry journeys to the mainland before easing into a warming set, underpinned by admirable passion for their native music. Bringing the room to life, without disrupting the intimate atmosphere, the trio energetically promoted their home tradition, with Jamie Smith’s Manx singing sensitively complimented by Adam Rhodes on both guitar and bouzouki. A notable highlight was fiddler Tomas Callister’s interpretation of Manx song ‘Graih Foalsey‘ – meaning false love – which silenced the audience and showcased the versatility of the group who then launched into a pulsing set of reels from most recent album, Manannan’s Cloak, reminding us of their ability to lift an audience with music that urges dancing.
Opening with an old time medley, The Hot Seats provided an entertaining performance, delving into their multi-genre, melting-pot repertoire which retained a wholesome rawness whilst departing somewhat from traditional moulds; lining up honky-tonk and ragtime numbers against the fierce bluegrass fiddling of Graham Dezarn. Between sets, Josh Bearman, laughing, spoke proudly of the undefinable nature of their music. As a group they shared a mischievous presence on stage, switching between instruments between most sets. They concluded with a tribute to the inspirational banjo-player, the late Bill Birchfield, who passed away earlier in the month. http://thehotseats.net/
Earlier that evening, Louise Bichan, in her home parish of Orphir, gave a debut performance of recently recorded material from Out of My Own Light, a project capturing the journey of her late Grandmother from Orkney to Canada in response to a romantic dilemma when she was just twenty-five. Louise took melodic lead alongside Mike Vass who featured predominantly on the fiddle, but also on guitar. Su – a Lee on the cello and Euan Burton on the double bass teamed to create a dependable and rich low-end, embellished by the sparkling piano playing of Jennifer Austin and completed by atmospheric and beautifully unimposing percussion by Signy Jakobsdottir. The band emotively expressed the family tale and had the audience engaged from the outset performing a diverse range of Louise’s original composition in conjunction with diary excerpt and dramatic footage provided by Mike Guest. http://louisebichan.co.uk/
Review by: Alice Tait
Photo credit: Sean Purser