Kevin MacNeil & Willie Campbell / The Open Day Rotation

16 Mar 2010 in Music, Outer Hebrides

An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 12 March 2010

MACNEIL was reminiscing. Thinking back to the old an Lanntair. Up above the town-hall, that room with the raised, oak-floored platform and a shape that made it just right for acoustic and near-acoustic gigs. Once he gave the cue, I was thinking back too.

Willie Campbell (© Ria Macleod)

Willie Campbell (© Ria Macleod)

One man and a guitar. One woman and a voice. Adrian Byron Burns with one set of gizmos to do his Hendrix medley. Willie Campbell to raise that melodious whining voice that becomes pop-pibroch.

They’re planning to rip that interior apart now. I think the council thinks it needs more offices. But the boys were on the stage in the new building. The project is 25 years old, not the building.

Kevin MacNeil and Willie Campbell opened the gig, part of a programme celebrating an Lanntair’s quarter century. (More of this story later ) It was a good example of the advantages of the new venue. There were not many empty seats. In the olden days, Alex Macdonald, the events co-ordinator, would have had to hire a hotel.

It’s easy to forget that as you settle into the raked seat and glance back to the sound desk, just where it should be as the nervous players are nodding to Mike, the resident sound-guy. They needn’t have worried. This was a local audience in a town coming awake properly after a deep freeze. We were out for a good night.

For those of you who have not heard it yet, this is what they do. A rhythm is set up. A fairly minimal chord or two enters. There could be percussion that’s hardly there (though the musician should make less fuss about finding the various bits and pieces).

MacNeil speaks over that small swell. His voice is very low-key, not much variation but somehow the plain-ness makes you concentrate. I think it’s a bit like kids fiddling with a piece of string when they’re listening to a story. You shouldn’t try to stop them because they’re usually concentrating deeper, as one other part of their mind is engaged on something else.

Then, usually, Campbell lifts his extraordinary voice and an insistent melody nags away at you till you give way to it. It works. They introduce some variations on this way of working and a few jokes. Some of the imagery in the poetry is haunting. The saxophone seahorses remind me very much of Iain Crichton Smith’s ability to let the unconscious surface. But I think the words are cleverly left more plain, to allow space for the melodies to intone them. And then there’s a flourish.

There were some older pieces but some new material too – more of that shortly as well.

The interval gave time for a proper ensemble to assemble on stage. The Open Day Rotation seems to be a bit freeform in its characters. Aside from Willie Campbell, I recognized Bubbles, the rugby-playing drummer. The bass player looks like a guy not to tangle with either.

The rhythms were very plain again, and very solid. They left space for some fine guitar work from Rod Morrison (normally in the band with the excellent name Kroftwerk), and piano from Fiona Mackenzie.

Just when you were tuning in to all that, cello and viola entered. It was asking a lot of the sound-balance, too much really, but the atmosphere built up just fine. What you could hear of the piano was kept minimal again and that was good because the harmonies of Willie, still giving his all, and Fiona Mackenzie, were superb.

There was one more guest appearance from a resident Irish lady, Sinead Cunningham. Her voice was a complete contrast to Mackenzie’s, and also just stunning against Campbell’s.

So what we had was a treat, really. I don’t think you could call the whole show tight or well-balanced. It might have lacked a bit of the drive it would need to work in an away game. But there were some great tunes, and Campbell’s own lyrics are arresting.

The clever stroke was to surprise MacNeil at the end with an invitation to join the jam. Campbell handed him a sheet of paper and asked him to get on with it. There was genuine surprise as the poet read the musician’s lyric before the tune took off. We got all that and an encore as well.

© Ian Stephen, 2010