Even beyond the arena gates, in the town of Stornoway, the festival has a strong presence throughout the streets including Martin’s Memorial Hall which hosted a number of BBC Radio nan Gáidheal broadcasts. En-route to the main site on Friday afternoon, I decided to take a look in and was lucky to catch the closing sets of Le Vent Du Nord’s live session taking place within the beautiful church building. A very friendly reception welcomed people in from the street and the shows were free, making the venue a very pleasant pit-stop. Continuing onto festival site afterwards, I got a chance to absorb the surroundings in daylight. The main site has a charming location, situated on the Lews Castle grounds opposite the harbour with the tops of the tents rising from behind the trees with the castle in the background.
I headed for ‘Julie’s’ acoustic tent, the festival’s most recent addition to its collection of stages, which offers a cosier alternative to the main tents. Scottish act, Siiga, were setting up on electric guitars and synth keyboard on the small stage at the back of the tent. Iain Hutchison opened by building subtle layers of sustained guitar and sweet, melodic electronic percussion, which provided mellow backdrop for the gentle vocals of Richard Macintyre. The duo performed a number of slightly more upbeat yet equally peaceful pieces before ending with ‘Michelle’, a tranquil, lightly-swinging song which speaks of Skye’s Coral Bay and was backed by atmospheric, echoing accompaniment. Afterwards I spoke with Richard, the vocalist and main figure behind the project. A native to the Isle of Skye, he explained the latter part of 2014 was spent in a cottage on the island as he worked on his most recent album ‘The Sea and the Mirror’. He and Iain are currently on a European tour; this was the debut performance of the new material in Scotland. The pair are looking forward to a further home appearance at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival in August.
Le Vent du Nord made a second appearance, this time, on the Main Stage. Seeing them in both locations so close between brought to light the impressive versatility of the band. Earlier that day, in the church, the group were sat on chairs, playing a pared back acoustic set for the more intimate location. They were now lined up across the front of the stage; playing with immense lift and a huge presence, their iconic foot-tapping filling the arena. They played a wonderfully dynamic set, filled with Quebec reels and enviably rich four-part vocal harmonies which were underpinned by the earthy, surefooted bouzouki/hurdy-gurdy combination. One of Québec’s finest ambassadors of folk music, the group retains the raw sound, whilst very carefully placing it within a modern context; making them an undeniably attractive festival act.
Sorren MacLean and his band were underway on the Islands Stage. Fortunately, nothing was lost in the windy tent – the live band retained the quality heard in his most recent album, Winter Stay Autumn. The set was beautifully varied, including sparky fiddle tunes between his moving and uplifting original songs. A particular highlight was the effortless combination of Sorren and Hannah Fisher on vocals for ‘Way Back Home’. Another from the recent album, ‘Watch’, heard the band elaborate on wistful guitar picking to create a powerful, dreamy intermediate between vocals. This was a very nourishing forty-five minutes.
The international line-up was further strengthened by Raghu Dixit, an Indian singer, described as a leading figure in his country’s indie scene. He was addressing his audience back on the main stage. A very powerful, yet warm and playful voice was welcoming those at the outskirts of the tent in from the rain – ‘come in, dance, have a good time!’, before the band eased into ‘Kodagana Koli Nungitha’ a song with a grooving bassline underneath a gritty riff, played on the electric guitar and flute. The lyrics derive from the writing of Santha Shishunala Sharifa, a poet who has hugely influenced Raghu Dixit’s music. He threw his voice around, scattering vocal ornaments over the traditional melody. He went on to teach the audience his next song ‘Lokada Kaliji’ which resulted in a joy filled call-and-response marathon which became increasingly musical, eventually filled with harmonies as the crowd sang back. The full band picked up, this time with a Cajun edge to their accompaniment, spurring on a frenzy of dancing. Particularly impressive was the swirling flute solo on this piece, which filled the arena before Raghu closed with spirited chanting. This was his sixteenth appearance on stage in the UK and both his music and charismatic character were very warmly received by the audience.
Another band purveying the popular folk-rave subgenre at this festival were Halcyon, a three-piece electronic dance fusion act. Fresh from an Austrian appearance the previous weekend, the three were on firing form, and had attracted an enthusiastic following of all ages to the Islands Stage. The band comprises three weel-kent faces of the Scottish scene; Barry Reid on electric guitar and John Somerville on the accordion and Adam Sutherland on the fiddle. The set featured huge swells into driving accordion and fiddle melodies, all underpinned by blistering riffs and a big beat. The three had a hugely energetic presence on stage, especially when joined by special guest, fellow Treacherous Orchestra fiddler, Innes Watson who threw himself around along-side Adam Sutherland, whilst the others handled the electronics. Talking afterwards, Adam explained the trio had been working away behind closed doors for around four years, emerging now and again – as he put, ‘like a mad night-creature’ – allowing them to work their way ‘over ground’ and release music periodically, as opposed to working on an album. With an EP around the corner, I believe we’ll be hearing more live action from Halcyon.
Idlewild formed in Edinburgh twenty years ago. Their performance on the HebCelt main stage shows that the band is maturing well. The Scottish indie-rock outfit could be placed among the acts most remote from the traditional side of HebCelt’s wonderfully diverse line-up. Teamed with a spectacular light show, the band played an electrifying set, featuring both Roddy Woomble’s dream-like, nostalgic songs against those heavier, gutsy pieces. In terms of the former, the final number, Remote Part/Scottish Fiction, was an emotional highlight. Referring back to the record, which was released in 2002, this piece flourishes in live performance, gaining from the vocal harmonies contributed by Hannah Fisher. It features a nostalgic sample of spoken words, deriving from Edwin Morgan’s poem Scottish Fiction; which echoed out over a hypnotic sole fiddle line. This was an enjoyable set; a strong finish to Friday night’s entertainment.
Again the various options were open for late night music – The Elephant Sessions had cooked up a storm at the festival club at An Lanntair and were very well received by the boisterous dancers who still had some steam left after the day’s performances. The late night sessions were again taking place at the Caladh Inn. An impromptu session comprising a variety of visiting artists took in Saturday’s sunrise and contrary to local expectations, the sun shone for the better part of the day.
Review by: Alice Tait