30th Orkney Folk Festival
Various venues, Orkney, 31 May-3 June 2012
TO SAY that Orkney’s 30th folk festival was celebrated in suitably splendid style would be a somewhat gargantuan understatement.
AS THE event’s director, Bob Gibbon, observed in his closing remarks, before the massed finale to Sunday’s whistlestop seven-act Farewell Concert at Stromness Town Hall, “There’s only 24 hours in a day, but I think we’ve used every single one of them.” Musicians having their breakfast before going to bed at the Stromness Hotel – the festival’s primary hub, opposite the harbour – following the previous day/night’s marathon sessions of tunes and songs, would be chowing alongside those who’d had an earlier night, in order to perform that morning for local schoolchildren or old folks.
The first ‘official’ sessions in the festival’s three designated hostelries – also including the Royal Hotel and the Ferry Inn, and all no more than a hop, skip and jump from each other; or a slightly slower stumble – kicked off daily at noon, as did Friday and Saturday’s lunchtime concerts. The other session slots, all hosted either by acts from the main programme, in between their main gigs, or by hotshot Shetland quartet Vair, drafted in specifically to play the pub circuit, were at 3 and 8pm, supplying a daily 10- or 11-hour stint of top-quality, entirely gratis music (bar the price of a pint or two) – and music, too, which couldn’t be replicated at a scheduled concert, what with other visiting and local musicians joining in as they happened along.
This semi-impromptu dimension to the festival’s programming accounts for a significant proportion of its audience, a good many of whom buy no tickets at all, travelling to Stromness solely for the sessions, and thereby still mainlining a hefty wadge of cash directly into the town’s economy, what with their bed, board and beverages over the weekend.
And in fact it was just as well that plenty of Orkney punters weren’t fussed about attending actual concerts, since virtually almost every single seat for this year’s 28 ticketed shows had been snapped up in advance, attendance perhaps buoyed not only by the big 3-0 but by the festival’s being crowned Event of the Year at last December’s Scots Trad Music Awards.
From the wilds of Westray in the islands’ far north, via the (relative) metropolitan fleshpots of Kirkwall to the looming southward grandeur of Hoy, a fleet of minibuses and inter-island ferries scurried hither and thither delivering musicians and PA crews – just one aspect of the festival’s not-so minor, volunteer-driven logistical miracle, alongside stewarding, stage-management, venue liaison, compering, and keeping everyone fed and watered, wherever they might be working that evening. Following the midday start, each night’s final shows kicked off at 10.30pm, finishing with the bars’ 1am licence – although with all three session venues being hotels, and all packed with folk festival visitors, the informal graveyard shift would then commence in the residents’ bar, seeing the tunes through until breakfast.
The 30th birthday line-up expertly spanned the folk spectrum from such stellar international names as Eddi Reader, transatlantic fiddle/cello duo Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas and sensational Québécois quartet Le Vent du Nord, to national treasures like Arbroath veterans The Foundry Bar Band, and outstanding Orkney talents like singer/songwriter/guitarist Kris Drever, eight-piece folk/rock/blues juggernaut The Chair, and multi-talented teenage siblings Maggie and James Nicolson.
And it’s only fair to say of the last-mentioned duo, who opened Saturday night’s Town Hall show ahead of Drever’s Festival Quartet and Reader’s second set of the weekend, that their beautifully harmonised vocals, self-accompanied on piano and guitar, caused just as much buzz on the festival grapevine as any of the headliners.
Pretty much all round, Orkney 2012 was one of those occasions when everyone was inspired to play out of their skins. Le Vent du Nord, to take just one example, seemed to have attained a whole new dimension of scale and ambition in their music – even measured by their triumphant 10th anniversary show with Dervish, Väsen and Breabach mere months back at Celtic Connections. One extended number in particular, encompassing a positively mind-boggling hurdy-gurdy solo and a haunting, devotional-sounding a cappella vocal among its panoply of delights, had much of the audience sitting literally open-mouthed.
Kan, too, the four-way instrumental dynamo comprising fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, flute/whistle ace Brian Finnegan, guitarist Ian Stephenson and drummer Jim Goodwin, have always set themselves formidably high standards, but even by those sounded almost literally on fire rounding off Friday’s late-night show at the Stromness Hotel.
Fraser and Haas’s self-styled ‘journey’ through Scotland’s fiddle traditions explored fresh realms of joyous virtuosity, while the young Highland-rooted five-piece Rura, combining tremendously tight, brilliantly multi-hued pipes- and fiddle-led instrumentals with Adam Holmes’s huskily affecting vocals, unarguably affirmed their reputation among Scotland’s hottest folk prospects – even if their flautist and bodhran player David Foley did unfortunately dislocate his shoulder during Sunday afternoon’s traditional Orkney vs Rest of the World football fixture. Team strips for the match included Tigger suits, liberal helpings of face-paint and outrageously garish drag, and while Orkney claimed victory, Derbyshire singer/fiddler Bella Hardy – a member of Drever’s aforementioned quartet – was justly proud to be man of the match.
And when respite was needed from all this musical richness and associated shenanigans, a spot by the sea to soak up the silence and space, often while watching seals swim by, was never far away. The birthday was blessed with largely lovely weather – including a handful of showers to produce some absolutely stunning rainbows, not least immediately after the Farewell Concert, just as a final flourish. Orkney’s largely treeless landscapes and deeply serrated coastline can look sere and unassuming under cloud, but when the sun comes out it lights up like a jewel, glowing in myriad intense, contrasting greens, browns and blues. Even amidst the verdancy and seemingly endless daylight of almost midsummer, though, there’s still that residual scalpel edge to the breeze as a reminder of the latitude – or as a prompt to finish your delicious al fresco fish and chips, and get back to the music.
© Sue Wilson, 2012