Our man in a sleeping bag is back, but in a B’n’B for good measure. A shockingly good, stunning riot of rave induced trad both delights and inspires.
Wow! No, really, this was like nothing ever experienced before. Or ever again, at least pending next year. Like most else, this has been a two-year wait, although there was a virtual fest last year, and the audience was thus champing at the bit. I certainly was, the line-up as pure bred Highland and Island fare as you could shake a sporran at, from gaelic song, extrovert instrumental chicanery with fiddles, boxes and pipes to full blown gaelictronica. Well worth a two day drive and “local” weather.
Sadly I missed the Thursday night: Donnie Munro, once of Runrig, making a triumphant homecoming, supported by Mànran. I had already booked time for the main two days, ahead of the organisers adding that earlier night as well. I was told it was a humdinger, drat and double drat. But Friday at 4pm I was eagerly awaiting the opening of the Lump, the unfortunately entitled name of the festival site, being, literally, a lump of a hill, above the famous painted houses of Portree. Sited in a bright red big top, it looked, I thought, pretty big for a folk gig….. A bar tent to the side and some food concessions a tad further up. Also a dance area still further up. (I confess I didn’t stray that far, there being way enough dancing for me on my level of the arena. Uncertain, indeed, if many made it that far, it seeming a slight waste, given the magnitude of choice on the main stage.)
First on trooped Falasgair, a bit of an unknown quantity, three months into their existence and with neither product nor representation to their name. But it won’t be long, believe me. Kicking off with two whistles, guitar, bodhran and electric piano, they played a storm stronger than the one threatening to break in the sky. Local boys, now based in Glasgow, they play high octane trad that belies this being their official debut gig. Of course, both the whistlers could also play the pipes, and did, often together, producing a glorious racket. The surprise then, when, suddenly and unexpectedly, the pianist picked up another set of pipes. Neatly avoiding the full bladder section melèe, that can sometimes be overkill, his two bandmates were both back on whistles again. Stunning, and that nuance, whereby the whistles are perhaps more an integral feature than the automatic crowd pleaser of pipes, should pan out well for them. (Crowd pleaser? I am told some people don’t enjoy this most magisterial of instruments, the highland war pipes. If you are of said weak constitution, frankly, I don’t recommend reading any further on.)
Lauren Collier and her band were next, with an eclectic mix of styles, kicking off with an almost gypsy jazz effect, her band consisting of drums and acoustic guitar, to her fiery fiddle and soaringly calm vocals. Bringing in global sources to complement the Caledonian, instrumentals were interspersed with fine song, this was another eye-opener in the one to watch stakes. Her debut album follows later this year. I feel a point here should be made about the concept of acoustic guitar, here often blown asunder, as the strength of these strummers is astonishing and the sounds produced could put many an electric player to shame. She was followed by Heisk, who were firmly anticipated, their 2021 debut album being a favourite of mine. They did not disappoint, the electricity of their enthusiastic blend of traditions exhilarating. With two fiddles, accordion, keyboards and electro harp, their secret weapon is Lauren McDonald, who punished her drum kit with equal venom and glee.
With tunes like Disco, to an appropriately mirrorball beat, she had me worrying for any drummers later performing, being perhaps shown to be wanting, her thumping remarkable and reviving at the same time. I believe it was also new fiddle player, Isla Callister’s, first gig with the band. Their three-quarters of an hour flashed by and I was entranced. Why is Electro Harp not seen more often, I wondered, Becca Skeoch making it as much delight to watch her fingers as to hear their result. The audience was getting to be all nicely warmed up by now, beginning to make me understand the need for the size of the tent, worrying more now by its compactness.
A little more decorum came then courtesy Project Smok, the trio of Pablo Fuente, Ali Levack and Ewan Baird. Their cerebral take on Scottish music was of no less energy, it being interesting to see the trio as well able to raise as much dust alone, as on their debut album where they were augmented by a fair few guests. I guess they add a New Age timbre to the traditional Scottish west coast material they build upon, assuming New Age is still a thing, the sort of dance music you can still listen to when sitting down. But it’s still better on your feet, and bodhran, pipes and guitar, yes, acoustic, never sounded so big. At least at this stage of the proceedings.
Time then for a second all-female group, the Kinnaris Quintet, fresh from their 2nd album, released a week ago, and being also their welcome back to the band of Laura-Beth Salter, their mandolin player extraordinaire, from maternity leave, no less. One feels the trad/folk scene in this country is leading several fields in the concept of gender equality and the associated wisdoms as part thereof. And not just on stage, as I would place a fair bet that the lassie contingent of the audience was probably higher than that of the weaker sex, the laddies maybe all still at the bar. Be that as it may, this three fiddle, mandolin and guitar combo played a blinder, the synchronicity of the playing astonishing, the intuitive interplay between all the sounds a joy to the ears.
Special mention to guitarist, you know what sort, Jenn Butterworth, surely one of the hardest working players in ceilidh business, her name a staple across oodles of recordings and guesting/playing with innumerable other bands on the circuit. This was, I think, her only appearance this weekend, but her deftness of strum is superlative, as competent a rhythm section as any conventional bass and drums arrangement. (OK, not including the wonderful Ms McDonald from Heisk). Salter’s mandolin added layers of shimmer between the trio of fiddles, who seldom relaxed into any sense of unison, preferring instead to weave and wend around each other.
So, Talisk then. I have previously gone on record as finding them, or Mohsen Amini, at least, annoying, his Hendrix of the concertina all a bit much. Well, reader, I was wrong, the scales falling from my ears as this, another powerhouse trio hit the stage running. Fiddle, guitar, yes, that sort and the ridiculously swift and scintillating box work of Mr Amini. As ever, sure, he was kicking out his feet, leaning back in his chair as far as, and further than it should, go, periodically leaping to his feet to goad and encourage the audience. Who responded as if this were, say, Faithless at their peak, an almost religious experience, even if the light show fit-inducing and the volume heading tinnitus way. The heaving tent went ballistically bonkers, as too did I, by now having winkled myself back to the front of the stage.
No one-man show either, the guitar was being thrashed within an inch of its life, the rumble therefrom wobbling the collies, and the fiddle a veritable banshee. Utterly wonderful, the showmanship, and the music conspiring you to forget that this is, nominally, folk music. Tell the throng of kids, teens to thirties predominantly, plus the odd grizzled veteran like myself, that they were listening to a dying art form of minority appeal and they’d laugh at you, Grandad! How could anyone possibly top that?
Niteworks, that’s who, local boys made good, world famous superstars in the West Highland and Island world. My third show of theirs, having caught them last at their barnstorming showcase gig at Glasgow Barrowlands in 2019, How would this, I wondered, compare, not least with all the new stuff from January’s A’ Grian, well-liked by ATB. In all honesty, such was the build-up, and such the lubrication of the extremely well-oiled audience, they could have just come on, set the sequencers to go and waved the bagpipes in the air, and all would have gone home happy. Thankfully they did more, a lot more, but, it was the end of a tour, it was gone midnight, I suspect they were a little tired. Or, even, a little over-awed by the rabid maelstrom in front of them, putting even the exuberance of Barrowlands to shame, something seldom achieved on this Earth.
Allan MacDonald, on pipes and synthesisers is, I guess, the front man, and whenever he picks up his pipes, he draws huge cheers from the floor, while the more studious Innes Strachan and Christopher Nicolson potter over the electronic keyboards and computers, Nicolson also playing a fair bit of stomach churning bass. At the back, Ruraidh Graham does sterling and solid work, adding his human touch to the electronic textures that make it hard to see the join. I’m sure it is time that Fiona MacAskill was granted full band membership, such is her integral presence on fiddle, here tonight, as ever, sawing away grandly, still in her same stage garb as from her set with the Kinnaris Quintet. In truth, there were issues tonight; the sound balance seemed a tad off, and was certainly at a greater volume than even the Alabama 3 ever utilise for indoor gigs. The vocals, provided at this show by the stalwarts of Sian, predominantly Ellen MacDonald, were at times buried in the mix. Considering also, with the new and more hardcore techno variations being tonight provided, it is the vocals that help ground the songs and make them that much more recognisable, this was a little awkward. When MacDonald was joined by Elidh Cormack and Ceitlin Lilidh, there seemed a bigger issue with Lilidh’s monitor, she plainly exasperated and dissatisfied by the sound balance, rendering the trio distinctly flat on occasion. Which is extremely rare. But I quibble, it was a grand enough show and the soused, if not pickled, audience lapped it all up. It just wan’t up to the highest standards of Niteworks.
In bed by two, a good sleep gave me time to recoup my hearing, ahead of stumbling back into town. The lads from Falasgair had alerted me to a session that would precede the gates opening on the Saturday, to be held in a large cafè-bar, converted from a church. True to their word, at midday prompt they set up around a corner table and began, other instrumentalists joining along the way. At one stage I counted fifteen musicians, with a cello joining the throng of fiddles, whistles and pipes on offer. Grand. Thanks for the heads up, guys!
Saturday started off with Ceilear Cèilidh Trail, a group of impossibly young, again, bar one, women, with some delightful Gaelic song and music. Very much the sort of players Brian McNeill brings down to showcase at Cambridge Folk Festival every year, these too coming from the same Feis organisation, promoting the Gaelic music tradition throughout the North West. They were followed by Eabhal, with whom I wasn’t familiar before, something I have since remedied. More Gaelic cultural references aplenty, with pipes, accordion, fiddle, guitar (yeah, yeah) and vocals. I don’t know how so may bands can tinker with the palette of music that comes from this part of the world, yet impose upon it different textures to draw them apart from the, now, crowd of, nominally, similar bands. But they do and Eabhal do. It was also a second appearance for Megan MacDonald, who played also her accordion for Heisk, the night before.
By contrast, and offering a complete change, they were followed by Brìghde Chaimbeul, the piping prodigy, also from here on Skye. Solo small pipes, bellows driven, may sound a touch austere, and maybe it was. But I can categorically state her half hour was as fine as most of the best appearing. Near oblivious of the audience and as if in a trance, that was exactly the state her tunes put me into, of deep introspection, touched with awe as to her skills. If Terry Riley came from the Hebrides, In C might have sounded this way. Joined by a guitar accompanist for the last two songs of her set, this was an absolute highlight, and strangely more accessible than her rightly acclaimed album of 2020, The Reeling.
Lo and behold, what is this madness, the next band had electric guitars? The Islands, their name, and, fine, I guess, in any other setting, here they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, their quasi-landfill indie a false note, if perhaps added as a change of palate against the encroaching overall flavours otherwise provided. I took that change as being my cue for a rest, which was, for me, just as good, except I then missed the very well recommended Siobhan Miller, having mistimed my walk back from town. My bad. Fat-Suit I did catch, who were there, like the Islands, to add some variation. Two electric guitars, two keyboards, bass, drums and a brass section. Oh, and Lauren Wilkie, another of the Kinnaris Quintet, on, today, authentically jazzy fiddle. The music was all a bit clever for me, very mathematical and redolent of later period Zappa, minus the scatology. Very good, I am sure, but not my personal cupan ti, except when Wilkie was soloing or whenever, which was a lot, the saxophone and trumpet were to the fore, variously and collectively. They were superb, in fact, interim players who seemingly only get to play at the band’s prestige shows.
I was convinced Blazin’ Fiddles would be neither for me or the audience, being, frankly, a little staid and long in the tooth for this audience. How wrong could I be? Consummate performers, they held the audience in their thrall, the entire tent in their hands as they gave a master class in how to put on a show. They were utterly terrific, with Bruce MacGregor, possibly the oldest man on stage all weekend, effortlessly getting nearly the best response for this young, hip crowd, and me, as anyone else all day. Four fiddles this time, piano (electric) and the return of acoustic guitar, saw them play a barnstorming set of tunes, the cheers getting louder and louder, except as MacGregor attempted – and managed, a full splits, the groans as his scrotum hit ground zero, after a brief delay, when it appeared he may not make it, near as loud. Jenna Reid, Shetland, and Kristen Harvey, Orkney, brought their slightly differing styles alongside MacGregor and Rua MacMillan, from Nairn. Anna Massie, the doyenne of rhythmic guitar play and Angus Lyon’s tinkling keys make up the band.
Dàimh call their work some jigs and some Gaelic song, interspersed with more jigs and more Gaelic song. Asking if the throng were up for that, the throng said, loudly, how very much they were. Ellen MacDonald was back, she being also their singer, and had no issues with sound today, her vocals stunningly clear and clarion-like. The boys in the band, piper Angus MacKenzie, fiddler Gabe McVarish, mandolin player Murdo Cameron and guitarist, that sort, Ross Martin, gave absolute welly, or laldy, to be area specific, to their tunes, then going all sensitive and sincere for their backing to MacDonald’s singing.
Trail West are apparently huge, an institution. I will say no more, not taking to their party band high jinks. My loss, I am sure, but the breather they gave me allowed me to find some faltering strength for the magnificence that is Elephant Sessions. Taking impossibly long to get the sound balance right, which they did eventually, for a marvellous ninety-minute romp through their repertoire. Sort of like an electric Shooglenifty, they are actually much more than that, the precision of th rhythm section astounding. I doubt even Lauren from Heisk could have put as much intricacy into the clubby rhythmic precision of Greg Barry, also the provider of many a sneaky sample added along the way, a computer slotted into his kit. Seth Tinsley provided subterranean bass and Moog, whilst Mark Bruce added powerchordal salvos of electric guitar.
If the bulky figure of Alasdair Taylor provides the off-stage persona of the band, even although his mandolin playing was perfect, knowing when and when not to add notes, on-stage it was the fiddle player that most caught the eye. Euan Smillie’s playing dominated and led the band through a lot of old and quite a lot of new, announcing a new album is to drop later in the year. With a light show akin the Northern Lights on acid, the tent was going mental, it becoming clear they, as the closing act, had actually stolen the crown for being the best band of the whole shebang. All too soon it was half past one, way past my bedtime and they were off, with only an encore, duly provided, to keep us from our beds or from more carousing. I took the former and reflected, as I wandered back to base, how much I had enjoyed these two days, wishing that English audiences could be as enthusiastic as the one here. I have seen the future of rock and roll. And it’s bloomin’ folk music!
All in all a cracker of a weekend, and a credit to the organisers. From the bar concessions alone, they will have made up for the fallow years, and should be well prepared for the future. A word, however to those good people, in that let’s have some decent ale next year, lager not everyone’s preferred tipple, even if it was Innis and Gunn.