Hebridean Celtic Festival 2008

31 Jul 2008 in Festival, Music, Outer Hebrides

Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 16-19 July 2008

Julie Fowlis and Mary Smith (photo - Peter Urpeth)

IT IS NOW almost a contractual necessity for reviewers of British summer music festivals to dwell on the vagaries of the climate and the appalling public health consequences of the seemingly endless deluge that is the British summer in these modern times.

The latest excesses of this climatic speculation include digressions on the apparent re-emergence of such good -ol’- days diseases as Trench Foot before the reviewer can queue for three hours to get into the half-cooked, extortionately expensive meat-and-drink of his/her comments on the actual performers at the festival in question.

Such medical observations have in the ‘naughties’ replaced the grizzly image of half-cut, cider-netics drowning in lakes of human slurry as the popular image of outdoor music events that predominated in the 80s and 90ss.

Well, this reviewer is no different, and knows a good opportunity for cliché confirmation when he hears it. That golden opportunity arose on the very last evening of the 13th Hebridean Celtic Festival. The band playing were Iain Morrison and the Sleepy Cafe Band (more about this fine outfit later), the singer, Daibhidh Martin.

During one of the band’s highly entertaining numbers Daibhidh intoned the lines: “In this never-ending rain, I feel my face begin to run.”

As a fellow resident of Lewis, all I can say is that I know how he feels and greatly admire that fine writer’s ability to combine the issues of climate and health in one brisk, witty and efficient line.

In Daibhidh Martin, a native of the Lochs district of Lewis, there are many, many more such lines of imagination – a combination of sturdy, old Gaelic knowing and wide-world experience that prizes open the stiff-spined clam of island life to expose a glimpse of the weird, salty, colourful world inside.

Sadly for the purposes of this review, the weather wasn’t at all bad at this year’s event, and the sanitary facilities were the best I can remember at this festival. At times it was blazing warm, sure the frequent showers were straight from the Baltic, but on the key issues of weather and pubic health, this Festival was a belter.

Now, in the space left for the review, I’d like to mention something about the music on offer.

With so much focus on the proceedings in the big tent, this reviewer took it upon himself to go in search of the alternatives at this year’s festival, and to focus his attentions on the proceedings of the festival away from the epicentre, mostly the programme of afternoon duets and evening gigs at Stornoway’s An Lanntair arts centre.

The result was finding a festival that featured at least two tunes dedicated to Outer Hebridean golf courses; a wealth of male Gaelic singing and – a bit like Big Blue herself – a festival that is pegged and grounded at its edges in the peaty earth of Gaelic traditional music.

The opening concert of the Hebridean Celtic Festival 2008 offered a chance for local audiences to catch what is now becoming something of a regular concert pairing between two of the Hebrides’ most celebrated singers, Mary Smith and Julie Fowlis.

It was, of course, also a chance to hear side-by-side two singers whose routes centre stage could not have been more different. In this concert, the pair featured many songs very much from their respective homelands, Ness, Isle of Lewis and North Uist. Where opportunity arose, we were even treated to the local versions of some songs – such as ‘Thig am Bata’ – that have many geographical variations throughout the Gaelic song world.

The rise of Julie Fowlis to almost mainstream media musical status has been nothing short of meteoric – a rise that is based on Julie’s sweet voice, sound musicality (as this concert showed once again, Julie is a highly accomplished piper), sheer hard work and the backing of a media savvy record label. The fact that there are ears open to Gaelic music in the high places of national broadcasting does owe considerable debt to the musicians, bands, agents and promoters who have over the last couple of decades pushed for such mainstream recognition. And why not?

But it also amounts to evidence of a latent interest and responsiveness in the infrastructure of the mainstream musical / broadcasting world that in her early days, Ness-born singer, Mary Smith, would probably never have dreamt of witnessing. Such interest is, of course, as fickle as… well, we’d best not go there… less clear is the route to securing the sustained mainstream interest, but one senses that if anyone can, then it’s Julie.

In this concert, there was also the fascinating dynamic of the … ah-um… young and the older performing together. This dynamic in traditional Gaelic song is not limited to the matter of how the voice naturally alters with age, or of some crass assumptions about the supposed relative emotional knowledge that the more mature singer brings to the song.

The fact is that, in general, an older generation of singers do sing the songs of this tradition quite differently to their younger counterparts, although even that statement has to be taken with cognizance of some major exceptions.

The profound difference is between the singers who rigidly adhere to the received methodological traditions of Gaelic singing as being the heart of the tradition (as opposed to the repertoire of traditional songs) – especially with regard to melisma, and the dominant rhythm coming from the words – and those who don’t, preferring to sing Gaelic traditional songs in the manner, and with the formalities of other musical styles and traditions.

Why this duo works, amongst other reasons, is that whilst Mary Smith is one of the greatest living exponents of Gaelic traditional singing, Julie Fowlis is, in this context, much closer to her in the spectrum of difference outlined above, and perhaps this is evidence that the ‘tradition’ itself changes, is dynamic and evolving.

One reason, perhaps, for Julie’s relative success is that her blend of new and old is more successful and coherent than others who have tried to ‘rework’ the tradition over the years, only time will tell. On the evidence of this intimate concert, Julie’s relationship to the ‘tradition’ feels far less forced and precious, more natural – it is of course part of her own upbringing, and she has the Gaelic – and freer than some of her predecessors.

This was especially evident in Julie’s (first stage) performance of a song from her native North Uist, ‘Tha Mi Falbh Air Thuras’. The words of this song were written by a gamekeeper in South Uist who eventually turned against the killing of animals, and who knew his stock of deer so well that he had individual names for them.

The fact that Julie met the writer and that, in a manner close to the tradition, this song has personal importance and immediacy for the singer, resulted in a performance that was rich and moving. Julie’s performance of ‘An Eala Bhan’, a well-known song written from the trenches of WW1 by a soldier longing to return to North Uist, was equally poignant.

Mary Smith’s performance of ‘Cùl Do Chinn’, [The back of your neck] an elegaic, c.19th lyric from North Dell, in the Ness district of Lewis, written in praise of Angus, a supposedly very handsome lad who emigrates leaving his heart-broken lover behind, was for this reviewer the highlight of the concert, and highlights why Mary Smith is held in such high regard by her contemporaries.

The plaintive emotion in the song was delivered by Mary Smith with such clear insistence of phrase and precision of a rhythm given only from the words and the pattern of verses and choruses, that we passed effortlessly beyond the simple pain of longing to a real sense of hopelessness – that borne of the absolute parting that the Atlantic so often represented, and is oft represented in song form.

Mary Smith’s mid-register voice has a profound and steadfast beauty that at once contains both strength and frailty, such that it is the epitome of Lewis and that island’s Gaelic song traditions. Her singing is at the same time contemporary Gaelic song at its best, and she has very few peers.

This was, in short, Gaelic singing and song in its full majesty, and was an absolute privilege to witness.

Whilst the female Gaelic singing voice is now heard in some very mainstream musical environments, thanks to efforts of the like of Julie Fowlis, its male counterpart has, over recent years, not received anything near the same exposure. In fact, it is fair to say that with a few notable exceptions, and outside of the Mod, male Gaelic singing – especially in ensemble mode – has become something of a rare, live encounter.

But Gaelic singer, clasach player and award winning broadcaster, Mary Ann Kennedy’s new band Na Seòid [The Heroes], launched to great acclaim at last year’s Blas Festival, looks set to remedy at least some of that sad deficit.

If the quality of this considerable array of male singing talent were ever in question, the doubts were unfounded, as one member of its ranks quipped during the second half of this hugely enjoyable performance at An Lanntair – the band have more gold medals between them than the Kenyan long distance running team.

Many members of the band will of course be familiar to followers of Gaelic music both inside and outside of the Mod, including 2004 Young Traditional Musician of the Year, James Graham, Calum Alex MacMillan (Daimh), Tormod MacArthur (Meantime Ceilidh Band), Gillebride MacMillan, Norrie MacIver (Bodega), Griogar Lawrie and Angus MacPhail (Skippinish).

Apart from the fact that there were so many, high quality male voices on display, this performance also brought to the fore the fact that having a band comprised entirely of Gaelic speakers, really does make a qualitative difference to the performance of Gaelic song.

It is a stated aim of Mary Ann Kennedy in this project to have a band comprised of singers and musicians that use Gaelic in their daily lives and interactions, and that the language is not therefore just something for performance.

With much of the evening comprised of the band working in solo, duo, trio or small ensembles, mixing up vocal-only and accompanied songs, the range and style of material is as wide as any Gaelic band this reviewer has encountered, including new songs by band members, and traditional songs both familiar and less so.

In performing such a wide variety of material there is a risk that the overall purpose might be unclear and difficult to distinguish – is this a concert band or a ceilidh band? However, at An Lanntair the balance was finely achieved, creating a real sense of informality while retaining the space and authority for some darker moods and emotions – attaining that unique feel of truly Gaelic ceilidhs where the ebb and flow of material is pretty much an organic and responsive call with room for the lament as much as the out-and-out joyous and light-hearted.

At this gig, the banter matched the overall sense of celebration. Including the revelation that Gillebride MacMillan’s (Gaelic – Gillebrìde Mac’IlleMhaoil) new nickname is ‘pretty boy’, thanks to the efforts of a state-side clan gathering announcer who mispronunced Gillebride’s name as ‘Gile-breagha’. Praise also to James Graham who obviously didn’t listen to his phone messgaes before heading out for the gig, as he was the only man not dressed in the uniform black shirt and trousers, going instead for an off pink shirt and peach tie. Lovely.

Amongst the instrumental highlights were Mary Ann Kennedy’s own flowing clarsach and Griogair Lawrie’s fine fingered guitar stylings. Hats-off also to Tiree’s own Angus MacPhail, whose melodious box serviced the band all night until such time as he finally coaxed into taking a turn at the mic’ – and what a fine resonant, bass voice he possesses.

But the strength of this band is in its unique male, ensemble sound, heard to great effect on the opening song of the evening, ‘Chunna Mise Mo Leanna’, which received a forceful, rugged working, and in the later, ‘Sgeir An Oir’ , in a rendition which enabled the beguiling tenderness and introspection of the male ensemble sound to emerge.

At last! evidence that being locked in the cupboard at school for hours on end is not at all bad for your music career – more on that later.

The duet at An Lanntair of Lewis-born fiddler / multi-instrumentalist Alasdair White (Tong, Lewis) and singer / piper Calum Alex MacMillan (Point, Lewis), brought together in their first concert outing two of Lewis’s finest in a pairing that, despite both musicians still being in their early 20s, has long roots. Both also had the privilege to be taught as youngsters by Pipe Major Iain Morrison (Queen’s Own Highlanders) of Back, Lewis, who, as a teacher, not only has the same formidable reputation as he had as a performing piper and a staunch attachment to the right way of doing things when it comes to pìobaireachd, but is also a master exponent of the Lewis / West Coast pipe style that has so influenced the music of these two performers, alongside many others.

The afternoon concert saw Alasdair [see Peter’s interview with Alasdair from the festival in Features – Ed] and Calum perform as a duet and in solo instrumental and voice settings, covering traditional Gaelic songs including ‘Dh’Fhalbh Mo Run’, ‘Seinn An Duan Seo’, and ‘Air Fa la la lo’, as well as sets of solo and duet jigs, reels and airs on violin, small pipes, whistles, guitar and bouzouki.

Calum Alex’s voice is mellow and sonorous bringing quiet authority to the airs he performs, and a crisp clarity to puirt a beul – and he is a first-rate piper. With the precision and melody of Alasdair White on violin, guitar and bouzouki, this was a display of masterly musicianship whose energy was never wasted on the merely pyrotechnical.

These are Gaelic musicians raised with a strong awareness and instinctive knowledge of both the traditions, formalities and oft joyous purposes of the music they play and were raised within – as the first line of ‘Seinn An Duan Seo’ suggests they certainly did sing their song to a happy isle.

But this review has to end on one further note of praise. For this reviewer the highlight of this year’s Hebridean Celtic Festival came at this gig in the form of a solo fiddle set from Alasdair White. Playing the tunes ‘South Oust Golf Club’ / ‘Christy Campbell’s’ / ‘The Amorous Lover’ / ‘Dancing in Habilis’ / ‘The Siesta’, Alasdair gave a demonstration of island fiddling that was of the absolute highest quality. Swinging this set of melodies through lightning-quick embellishments and slides, he has surely emerged as the finest and most entertaining Gaelic fiddler of his generation.

The Sleepy Cafe Band is, as far as a simple definition allows, the vehicle by which Lewis’s own Iain Morrison performs his ‘solo’ material (voice, guitar, small pipes). That said, the band at An Lanntair for this performance included musicians from the other fine outfit he fronts, Crash My Model Car, in Tony Soave on drums, and Ali Whitty on bass, along with poet / songwriter/ performer Daibhidh Martin. And completing the line-up was ex-Capercaillie whistle maestro / multi-instrumentalist, Marc Duff.

Performing songs largely taken from their recent album, ‘Skimming Stones…Sinking Boats’, and the earlier, ‘Empty Beer Bottles and Peat Fire Smoke’, Iain Morrison’s music is an enigmatic and truly original mix of creative elements, that in a very large part is very much his and their own, and which, beyond its immediate sonorous beauty, has a depth of startlingly imaginative, even surreal, observation that equals the likes of Bjork (but without the twee, pouty twists) and Howe Gelb at their most introspective and personal best.

At times it’s contemporary acoustic rock, at other times, its part folk band, part troubadour’s tribe. But then, you’re running with some lightning quick sets on pipes and whistles.

In this musical journey, Iain has taken with him fellow poet Daibhidh Martin of Lochs who contributed the words to two of the bands finest songs, ‘Skimming Stones’ and ‘Winter, Part 1′, and performs with the band in a kind of speak-over, recital style above the music. Daibhidh’s contribution, one senses, is as much directional as it is material, encouraging his counter-point (not too much encouragement needed, one suspects) in pushing the shape and imagery of the material into some truly original places. The impact is really in terms of narrative, of story-telling, of mythologising, but also of grounding the entire scheme in new island sensibilities.

Attempts to pin Iain Morrison’s style into neat comparisons and influences have, as a consequence seen mentions for the likes of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. But think also of Donovan, Lou Reed and David Byrne, and yep, you’d be no closer to forcing Iain Morrison’s music into the mould of your choosing. What can be said for certain is that Iain Morrison has managed to find a sound world in which all the disparate parts of his musical knowing and inclination combine in an invisible and effortless blend.

That, and the fact that he is as good a piper as you’ll see anyway on your musical travels – but then, you’d expect nothing less from the son of the great pipe major himself, Iain Morrison (a.k.a Dad, as Iain Jnr calls him) – makes this one the most original bands to emerge from the Long Isle in many a year.

The large, very mixed crowd at An Lanntair confirm the wide appeal of Iain Morrison’s music, that and the fact that the Gaelic music and piping he grew up with have no need to lurk in a cosy, self-reflective ghetto.

© Peter Urpeth, 2008