Hebridean Celtic Festival 2011

20 Jul 2011 in Festival, Music, Outer Hebrides, Showcase

Hebridean Celtic Festival, Isle of Lewis, 13-16 July 2011

WITHOUT implying any slight on previous Hebridean Celtic Festivals, this year’s 16th gathering – customarily a milestone birthday – really felt like an event that had come of age.

Having attracted some of the best UK and international acts on today’s increasingly diverse folk/roots scene, it treated them to a true weekend hooley in inimitably Hebridean style. Numbers were still being crunched at time of writing, but while last year’s landmark festivities, complete with the Runrig factor, set an exacting new record with a total attendance of over 17,000, all the signs were that 2011’s tally won’t be far off that, if at all.

Not only was the main arena in Lews Castle grounds – expanded this year with a new second stage, launched as part of the Scotland’s Islands initiative – consistently thronged, but all the other events that complete the programme, at both the An Lanntair venue in Stornoway’s town centre and local halls across Lewis and Harris, reported back as very busy indeed.

Rachel Sermanni band on stage (courtesy Heb Celt Fest)

Rachel Sermanni band on stage (courtesy Heb Celt Fest)

The Heb Celt today has also spawned an impressively large and diverse array of fringe attractions. Okay, it’s not every year that a squadron from the Tall Ships fleet sails into Stornoway harbour to join the party – though the timing was hardly coincidental, complementing as it did the annual Sail Hebrides maritime festival, which in turn has complemented the Heb Celt now for 13 years.

Also on offer to while away visitors’ days, though, were the Lewis Highland Games, several art exhibitions, a posse of the original Lewis chessmen at Museum nan Eilean, an inter-island shinty cup, live public radio broadcasts, a beginners’ Gaelic course and a continental-style market, plus lively informal sessions in Stornoway pubs. These last continued well into the evenings, alongside additional gigs by several festival acts in the local nightclub, and DJ Dolphin Boy’s three-night residency at HS1 café-bar.

In the days immediately after the last boatload of revellers left the island, as festival director Caroline Mclennan was buzzing about dealing with the aftermath (the dismantling of the massive, 5000-capacity main marquee, the crunching of those numbers and settling of accounts), she could hardly take a step in Stornoway for another local shopkeeper, hotelier, taxi-driver, publican or restaurateur stopping her to exclaim at how busy they’d been.

A second stage at the castle site has long been an aspiration for Mclennan and her team, but the rightness of its timing and planning were neatly encapsulated when a veteran festival volunteer was heard to comment, “It feels as if we’ve always had it.” Exact topographical positioning – for minimal sound-spill – and staggered scheduling, with performances on the Scotland’s Islands stage relayed into the big tent during intervals there, via both the PA and twin big screens, meant that flitting between the two couldn’t have been easier, yet neither impinged on enjoyment of the other.

Kan's Aiden O'Rourke (courtesy Heb Celt Fest)

Kan's Aiden O'Rourke (courtesy Heb Celt Fest)

The new addition also opens up the festival’s programming to a whole slew of acts who might previously have been too big and/or raucous for the theatre-style intimacy of An Lanntair, but not quite enough so for the main stage. This in turn coincides nicely with the rapid expansion of that extensive middle league, within the broad church of the folk scene, to encompass less traditional, more indie-inclined acts, memorably represented here by Radcliffe & Maconie favourites Woodenbox With A Fistful of Fivers, soulful Leòdhasach singer-songwriter The Boy Who Trapped the Sun, and feistily turbocharged Glasgow four-piece Kitty the Lion.

To the evident pleasure of the crowd – which included a strikingly healthy contingent of under-18s – these were mixed and matched with seemingly more straight-ahead, tunes-based lineups like the award-winning Highland combo Rura, Shetland’s Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag, heavy-hitting Orkney duo Saltfishforty and Celtic rave combo Niteworks, originally from Skye. Besides the music’s multifarious individual delights, the great thing was how well they all dovetailed, and highlighted each other’s contrasting qualities.

The same harmonious balance prevailed in the magnificent, cathedral-esque edifice of the big blue tent, with adroit juxtapositions like that of Dàimh – featuring Lewis-born Gaelic singer Calum Alex MacMillan – who opened proceedings there and set the bar awesomely high with a superb set on Thursday, with quirkily-named Oxford folk-popsters Stornoway, who gamely faced the music in the shape of a majority local crowd, and won them over with their own affectingly-accented balladry.

Friday delivered the exhilarating triple whammy of the new but already, it seems, all-conquering Mànran, followed by Eddi Reader with full band, on truly exultant form, and the Peatbog Faeries to finish, parading new fiddler Peter Tickell, new drummer Stu Haikney and material from new album Dust in euphorically authoritative style.

And then the big Saturday night duly capped it all, firstly with another captivating, spellbinding performance from meteorically-rising (and deservedly so) Highland star Rachel Sermanni – look to your laurels, Laura Marling. Next up was Kan, the still newish project jointly fronted by two of today’s most formidable Celtic instrumental talents, flute and whistle genius Brian Finnegan and Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, with guitarist Ian Stephen and drummer Jim Goodwin supplying forceful yet agile rhythm work. Parts of their set, virtuosic though it was, came across as just a little too cerebral for this climactic stage of the weekend’s game, but when they kicked up into top gear the resulting noise – from both band and crowd – was totally joyous.

K T Tunstall salutes the crowd (courtesy Heb Celt Festival)

K T Tunstall salutes the crowd (courtesy Heb Celt Festival)

Finally, KT Tunstall’s headline appearance was the moment we’d all been waiting for, and she did anything but disappoint, gi’in it laldy with boundless enthusiasm and conviction, mixing the hits and favourites from breakthrough debut Eye to the Telescope with newer self-style “nature techno” fare from last year’s third album, Tiger Suit. Tunstall evidently fell as much in love with the Heb Celt’s uniquely uproarious welcome as its audience did with her, promising to come back “any time you want”, and thus joining the legions for whom this exceptional festival has become an unmissable homecoming fixture.

© Sue Wilson, 2011