Blas 2011: Fèis Rois is 25 – Roots and Shoots

12 Sep 2011 in Festival, Highland, Music

Strathpeffer Pavilion, 11 September 2011

HAVING kicked off its silver jubilee year with a big celebratory extravaganza at Celtic Connections in January, Fèis Rois continued the festivities with a rejigged line-up and format for this Blas festival showcase.

THE eponymous “Roots and Shoots” denoted the dozen or so leading professional musicians – all Fèis Rois alumni and/or tutors, some of whom were at the very first gathering back in 1986 – who featured, together with the teenagers and twentysomethings representing the newest generation.

Clarsachs at Roots and Shoots (image © Reaaz Mohammad, courtesy Blas Festival)

Clarsachs at Roots and Shoots (image © Reaaz Mohammad, courtesy Blas Festival)

Several of the latter took the stage first, as this year’s two Fèis Rois Ceilidh Trail groups performed a short set, having spent the summer learning the musician’s trade on the road around the UK and Ireland. After this, the programme focused successively on each of Gaelic music’s main specialisms, with groups of pipers, fiddlers, harpers, singers and accordionists, numbering from four to seven, appearing in turn, before the whole 30-strong cast mustered for a rousing mass finale.

That total included a backing band of up to six, featuring guitarist Mike Bryan, pianist Ruairaidh Campbell and Colin McLean on cajon and bodhran, from which Bryan and two of his ex-Fèis Rois pupils, Innes White and Alasdair Paul, “gatecrashed” the running order to contribute a sparkling selection of fingerpicked tunes.

Most of the sub-groups within the line-up brought together tutors with former or current students – as with Eilidh Mackenzie and Rachel Walker among the singers, who’d never previously shared a stage – while a good many of the items performed were composed in honour of previous Fèis Rois personnel or special occasions. It all added to the infectious joie de vivre of the occasion, with the organisation’s present director Fiona Dalgetty (also one of the fiddlers) commenting that the preceding two days’ rehearsal had felt “just like being at the Fèis all weekend”.

That preparation paid off handsomely in the music’s plentifully varied array of imaginative but sympathetic arrangements, from the dreamily distilled longing and swoonsome four-part harmonies of an unaccompanied Lewis love-song, to the five pipers’ punchy, exuberant medley, comprising an original tune apiece. This broader balance of traditional craft and fidelity with fresh creative ideas and contemporary influences, in addition to all the musicians’ individual prowess, demonstrated another key secret of Fèis Rois’s success, underpinning the confidence with which it can look forward to its next quarter-century.

© Sue Wilson, 2011