Hebridean Celtic Festival 2005: Runrig/ Peatbog Faeries

25 Jul 2005 in Festival, Music, Outer Hebrides

Big Top, Stornoway, 15 July 2005


DAY 3 OF the Hebridean Celtic Festival and the excitement is tangible even as we’re standing in the queue to enter the festival area. Last night’s gig featured Van Morrison and is already being spoken of in Lewis as A Truly Memorable Night. How will tonight compare?

Surrounding us are a mass of people from all over the world, most of them wearing Runrig t-shirts and/or sporting massive Scottish flags. These are the devoted fans – sorry, fanatics – of Gaeldom’s most famous musical export. They are here to have fun, and they mean business.

It’s impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiasm, which grows by the instant as we all congregate inside the tent.

Starting off the evening is the glorious arrival of the Lewis Pipe Band; moving and delighting the audience, the Pipe Band is a great opener, imbuing the audience with feelings of appreciation, pride and high exhilaration.

Now, while it’s clear from the fans that most of them are here to see Runrig, whose gigs in Lewis have always been memorable, the Peatbog Faeries are a huge success too. The Skye-based band played a much-appreciated concert at the festival last year (supporting The Saw Doctors), and thus many in the audience already knew what to expect – perhaps the reason for such a big turnout so early in the night.

The Faeries’ varied mix of eloquent piping, speedy fiddling, funky bass, lively brass dynamics and muscular percussion energises the audience no end. The band play quite a few songs from their new album, ‘Croftwork’, which means the gig is an equal treat for those fans who’d seen them last year.

The Peatbog Faeries’ gig is dance-inducing, hypnotic and, as is supremely evident from the audience’s reactions, very enjoyable indeed. One look at the crowd and it is obvious most of them are very much away with the Faeries – a fine old place to be!

With the audience now thoroughly roused, it’s time to await the arrival of Runrig onstage. The whole tent trembles with anticipation. The buzz grows by the minute and the audience can hardly contain themselves, bursting out into massive chants of ‘Run-rig! Run-rig! Run-rig!’ each time an unsuspecting roadie ventures onstage.

Indeed, every member of Runrig seems to give it all they have – perhaps none more so than the phenomenally talented guitarist Malcolm Jones.

When at last the first song breaks out from the speakers it is, surprisingly, not one of the massive Gaelic anthems for which Runrig are best known, but an evocative and moving piece on the MIDI bagpipes by Malcolm Jones. It receives – and deserves – an enormous cheer from the crowd, a roar which gets even louder as the rest of band come onstage. Continuously during the night the crowd keep threatening to blow the tent away with their cheers of appreciation and spirited lungbuster singalongs.

The ensuing setlist consists of old classics and newer post-Munro material which seems to go down equally well. There is no disappointing this audience.

Agus ‘s beag an t-iongnadh. This gig is well prepared and thoroughly thought-through. The video projection screen is used to great advantage, occasionally screening powerful imagery – swelling seascapes, soaring eagles, old black-and-white footage of emigrants and soldiers – thus providing a strong visual accompaniment to the songs.

In a typically inspired gesture, there is also speeded up footage from a drive around night-time Stornoway. And when Malcolm Jones plays ‘Make Your Way to Stornoway’ in tribute to the locals, the whole tent explodes with joy.

Among the classics played are ‘The Greatest Flame’, ‘Alba’ and ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. Many of the older songs have been altered so that they differ subtly but appreciably from the album versions. Bruce Guthro has certainly made the feel of the band his own since bravely taking up the task of replacing Donnie Munro.

One difference from the usual set up on this gig is engendered by the fact that Rory MacDonald is unable to play bass due to a hand injury. Seemingly not taken back by this, he’s there to charm and enthuse, singing wholeheartedly and telling the crowd, ‘Hand or no hand, this is the place to be!’

Indeed, every member of Runrig seems to give it all they have – perhaps none more so than the phenomenally talented guitarist Malcolm Jones. I’ve always had a respect for his guitar playing, but seeing him play tonight’s concert leaves me in no doubt that he is a true virtuoso.

Don’t believe me? Watch the subtlety with which he plays, notice how he can play impromptu slide guitar without altering the tuning, listen to the way he makes complex guitar work seem easy. Ars est celare artem.

Coming back for encore after encore, the band themselves seem to enjoy playing in Stornoway almost as much as the audience enjoys having them.

The spirit of giving was in the air, the crowd gave Runrig seemingly unending applause and cheer and Runrig gave the fans a tremendous and awe-inspiring concert. It wasn’t a gig, it was just The Gig the packed crowd of 5,000 plus fans from forty different countries had hoped for.

© Kevin MacNeil, 2005