Hebridean Celtic Festival 2004 Day 2
Lews Castle, Stornoway, Thursday 15 July 2004
DAY TWO SAW the music switch to the new 5000 capacity tent at Lews Castle. The alignment of the venue has changed this year, too, running with the slope of the Castle grounds, with the stage at the bottom to create a raked auditorium. As matters progressed in the evening’s music, it became clear that the big top wasn’t the only monumental institution to be experiencing something of a realignment.
Danish group Instinkt kick-started the programme. Little known outside their own home land, the group’s music is a satisfying mélange of Scandinavian folk, world and roots rhythm and jazz styles, but always keeps to the inshore waters of the Danish/Nordic tradition. That said, the sheer ebullience of their wacky – even demented – stage presence brings to their music a looser, freer, more chancy edge akin to the trickster / shape shifter mythos, and which is not fully evidenced in their most recent CD.
Instinkt are brave and mischievous experimenters as well as being first class musicians. Never has this writer witnessed, for example, the strangely engrossing if decidedly trippy experience of free form, avant-garde hurdy-gurdy playing. Marvellous stuff, really, as is their embracing of voice / instrumental doubling, scat singing and a Pharoah Sanders-like growled out-ness, that comes straight from the jazz styles of the 1960s and 1970s.
On solid ground they create long chains of Hardanger-edged melody on fiddles and flutes and have an introspective, ambient side that is as intense and dark as a Scandinavian winter. Special mention must be made of drummer / singer Vivi di Bap, who came from behind the kit to stun an unexpecting festival cohort with 10 minutes of solo overtone chanting that veered from falsetto top notes to guttural bass churning with alarming ease. Terrifying and beautiful at the same time. Was Stornoway ready for this off-beat explosion of musical energy? Very probably. Did Instinkt steal the show? Well they were probably the finest folk band on the night.
“In this tent and with an excellent programme the festival has made another leap into the stratosphere.”
And now to the realignment of monumental institutions.… Capercaille headlined last night’s show and opened with a roup of turbo-charged tunes that set the scene for what was to come. Charlie McKerron and Mike McGoldrick were so evidently up for it that nothing was going to get in their way and the instrumental side of this outfit glistened through the entire proceedings with an infectious and unstoppable energy.
The band not only rocked but swung as well, and it was clear just how much more the sophistication of contemporary jazz is influencing the sound and rhythm worlds of the Celtic bands. At one stage it seemed – and I hoped – that McGoldrick would actually break free from the anchor of the melodies and solo over the groove set up by an immaculate rhythm section that sounded fresh, inventive and raving as much as the 4500 fans that filled the venue.
But when Karen Matheson periodically strolled to the mic for an occasional go herself, that sparkle rapidly dissolved. On this evidence, her singing is simply too bland and her demeanor, for this reviewer, too indifferent to place in front of a set of instrumentalists with such total commitment to the cause.
This performance suggested that there seems to be two Capercailles at large: a cracking instrumental band and the other one led by a singer. Matheson’s scant patter and overall presence were disappointingly lackluster, slightly patronizing in truth, and her contribution generally irrelevant to the success of their performance and a little too comfortably settled by the fire glow of her/their immense reputation and status.
In contrast, the kicking, full-on instrumental Capercaille is a rare and wonderful native bird, the largest of its kind, majestic and worthy of special conservation. There are in truth better and more interesting Gaelic song outfits in the modern world, but very few better instrumental bands.
In this tent and with an excellent programme the festival has made another leap into the stratosphere. While all is not perfect – no festival is – this year’s event and the growth of this festival is an incredible achievement that evidences the imagination and ambition of its organisers, not to mention their grip on the necessary steely nerves of big-time event management.
© Peter Urpeth, 2004