In Part One of her Orkney Folk Festival 2015 review Alice gave us a fine introduction to the festival as it expanded outward from the Stromness Hotel which houses “the best of sessions and concerts and provides temporary home to a haul of visiting artistes”. In part 2 she kicks off with the Friday night concerts and dances including headliners Tim Edey and Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys leading into Saturday with the showcase of Mike Vass’‘In the Wake of Neil Gunn’ as well as Sharon Shannon, Seth Lakeman, Fara, Gnoss and more.
Day 2 – Friday 22nd May
Friday night brought concerts and dances scattered across the Orkney mainland and the outer isles with ceilidhs taking place in Birsay, Tankerness and the isle of Sanday. Tim Edey and Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys were headlining the St Andrews ceilidh and brought the seated audience to life. Bookended by heart-warming audience sing along numbers – Tim Edey performed a virtuoso set. The hall retained a cosy atmosphere greatly due to his completely unpretentious manner and unmatchable warmth of character. Within the first five minute of his slot he united the crowd in the chorus of ‘Winds and Tides Permitting’, a song learnt from Irish friend Enda McCabe. He remained completely un-phased by a loop pedal ‘engine failure’ during one of his sets, gracefully laughing and apologising before rerouting into a blistering Irish traditional-meets-classical guitar fusion decorated by break-neck triplets, all enthusiastically received by a roaring audience. Switching to the box, he displayed his utter mastery of the instrument during a set of flighty strathspeys picked up from Charlie McKerron. http://timedey.co.uk/
Tim Edey Trio perform Enda McCabe’s classic “Wind’s & Tides Permitting” on BBC Alba
The interval saw an impromptu performance from visiting Norwegian choir Bygdaklang, who emerged from the audience, squeezed in between the front of stage and supper tables before the Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys took the reins, opening with a wonderfully complex and building skirl of body-percussion, stamping and clapping into a cross-rhythm frenzy before moving from old time roots to honky-tonk blues to a quirky Caribbean love ballad – all accompanied by the explosive tap dancing of Gordie himself; initially whilst playing his fiddle and eventually whilst playing backwards on top of his band-mates double bass. Acrobatic capers aside, the penultimate set, an old time piece ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’, highlighted the skill and musicality of the boisterous Prince Edward Islanders. http://www.gordiemackeeman.com/
The Friday Academy Club night was opened by the all Orcadian, female fiddle powerhouse, Fara who were followed by young country stars, Ward Thomas. Coming straight from the Tankerness Ceilidh, I had just missed out on Fara, who had brought the crowd to a boil for the Hampshire born duo who’s honeyed harmonies were backed up for most of their set by a following of fans in the audience. The twenty year old twins, Catherine and Lizzy, came bouncing off stage; thrilled with the response. Afterwards, they spoke enthusiastically about their coming return to Nashville to continue writing and recording. http://wardthomasmusic.com/
Day 3 – Saturday 23rd May
An early start was evidently no deterrent as the Academy Theatre filled for the showcase of Mike Vass’ ‘In the Wake of Neil Gunn’ project. Vass contracted with Lymes disease just months after receiving Composer of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Awards. Whilst in hospital, his father gave him Neil Gunn’s Off in a Boat; an account of a sea voyage in 1937 which marked Gunn’s life changing decision to leave his job in Inverness as a customs officer, diminishing his right to a pension, in order pursue writing. Inspired by the poetic and lyrical text, Vass retraced the writer’s journey during May last year, sailing the West coast with his father and a small crew and writing music in response to the book and his own perceptions during the expedition. The compositions were woven beautifully between live readings and performed against a backdrop of glistening panoramic photography from the trip. The highly evocative music was varied in texture; the ambient opening track ‘Settled in Clay’ subtly developed a nostalgic melody combining Innes Watson’s vocals with sparkling fiddle parts robustly supported by prominent pulsating bass lines. In contrast, the more gritty sounds evoked night-sailing in ‘Fused Dark’. The sound retained the freshness of previously released work ‘Decemberwell’ but drew on influences just slightly more remote from traditional music, which underpinned much of the earlier composition. Mike himself, Innes Watson and Euan Burton performed as a condensed edition of the nine-piece that featured earlier this year at Celtic Connections and on the album – which, since release, has led to demand for a reprint of the book. It is wonderful to see the music reviving interest in the literature of the North. Later in the weekend, Mike explained that the full line-up shall reappear in August, taking the project to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. www.inthewakeofneilgunn.com
Saturday afternoon saw the 5th edition of the Gathering, an Orcadian music showcase project directed by local fiddler Douglas Montgomery. (The Chair, Saltfishforty) Since 2011 the project has grown in many directions reaching stages at Shetland Folk Festival and Celtic Connections in addition to the annual reunion in Orkney. The Gathering consistently sees collaborative magic between stalwarts of the Orcadian folk scene. This year storyteller and musician Billy Jolly joined iconic fiddlers Colin Pirie and Tommy Mainland alongside an array of rising stars and familiar faces. This edition was dubbed the Fiddle Gathering, which previously featured at the Edinburgh Fiddle Festival. A heart-warming selection of traditional tunes alongside contemporary Orcadian music underlined the role of the Gathering in sustaining the distinctive music of the isles. An emotional highlight was the stirring performance of the Heroes of Longhope, led beautifully by fiddler Sarah McFadyen, in memory of those lost in the lifeboat tragedy of 1969. This was counterbalanced by the projects’ signature, feel-good arrangements performed in recognition of a number of the latter day Orcadian composers, some represented by their descendants on stage. http://www.musicinscotland.com/acatalog/Orkney-Folk-Festival-The-Gathering.html
In the evening, the eagerly awaited Pickaquoy Concert, featured the powerhouse line-up of Sharon Shannon, Seth Lakeman, Fara and Gnoss and hosted an audience of over 650. The award winning Orcadian duo Gnoss –had the audience fired up from the outset with a satisfyingly versatile set offering prominently self-penned tunes and a warming, laid back rendition of Joe Smith’s Games People Play where Aidan’s Moodie’s mellow vocals were tastefully decorated by Graham Rorie’s silvery mandolin work. At just nineteen the boys perform with enviable creative ability and stage competence beyond their years. The pair spoke enthusiastically of upcoming appearance at Folk by the Oak and plans to record in the near future. https://www.facebook.com/gnossmusic
Marking the anniversary of their debut performance at last year’s Orkney Folk Festival, Fara took to the stage, captivating the audience with witty charm before breaking into a gutsy strathspey/reel set (written by Louise Bichan and Catriona Price respectively) which saw playful yet seamless transitions from smoother harmony-rich sections into blistering fiddle dialogues, propped up by Jennifer Austin’s rousing piano playing. The set was well rounded; bookended by fiery sets with more placid yet equally colourful pieces falling between. A hauntingly beautiful interpretation of Canadian Charles Kingsley’s poem ‘The Three Fishers’ was led Jeana Leslie, who had collected the piece for a transatlantic collaboration at last year’s festival involving Qristina and Quinn Bachand. Her shimmering voice was backed by evocative arrangement showcasing the entire bands vocal ability. A more recent addition to their vocal repertoire was Burns song ‘Heart in the Highlands’ which was concluded by a stirring harmonic outro, sang acapella. The final set included contemporary, quirky Orcadian melody ‘Billy’s Short Leg’ – a tune composed by Fara’s own Kristan Harvey (Blazin’ Fiddles) – providing strong finish to a vibrant set, filled with character and life. Fara are looking forward to appearances at Cambridge Folk Festival and at Tønder festival in Denmark among others this coming Summer. http://faramusic.co.uk
Seth Lakeman won over the crowd, telling tale of the days sightseeing with his young family, who’d accompanied him to the festival, before inviting the audience to join the chorus on one of his signature numbers, ‘Portrait of My Wife’ continuing the familial theme, bringing warmth and a level of intimacy to the larger venue. The moodier piece – ‘The Courier’– which features in ‘Word of Mouth’ brought a change in tone, filling the arena with layers of eerie, wailing rhythm-fiddle upon earthy, percussive guitar parts through impressive pedal work. He spoke of the basis of his most recent aforementioned album; the cultural delineation of the area in which his roots lie – Devon and Cornwall – undertaken through the depiction of local unsung heroes within his songs. Closing with ‘Last Rider’ the tale of a hard-working railway worker, backed up by shuffling fiddle, he sent a pulse of excitement through the audience who were now well warmed up to welcome the legendary Sharon Shannon to the stage. Shannon played a mix of her familiar favourites, backed up by the electrifying presence of Alan Connor on keyboard and guitar who demonstrated astonishing skill on both instruments. Notablely impressive was his unexpected hypnotic electric solo following A Lament for Limerick, as Sharon explained she had picked up from Donal Lunny. Talking afterwards Shannon spoke warmly of her long-awaited trip to Orkney, remarking on the sweet local fiddling styles and on the hospitality offered during the weekend.
Meanwhile in Stromness, The Chair were cooking up a storm at the late night Stomp. Having formed to fill an unforeseen scheduling gap in the 2004 Orkney Folk Festival – a support slot alongside the renowned Peatbog Faeries – the group have featured at the festival ever since and have visited a number of festivals in-between times; including most recently, WOMAD Charlton Park Festival, Wickerman and Celtic Connections. Visually the band presented some stylistic changes – lead singer Brian Cromarty (Saltfishforty) sported a long skirt, blouse and cardigan having been captured by his peers after the Gathering concert for an adapted, less-mucky take on ancient Orcadian pre-wedding ritual known locally as a ‘blackening’. Utterly at home at the academy club, the band had the crowd dancing and singing along from the first number right through to concluding caper-filled collaboration on old-time classic ‘Cluck Old Hen’ with the Hot Seats. The party and collaboration continued through the night at Stromness Hotel with the sessions meeting the Sunday morning sunrise. http://www.lovethechair.com/
Review by Alice Tait
Part 3 soon
Photo credits: Sean Purser and Mike Guest