Gig review: Orkney Folk Festival

Leaders of the Big Orkney Song Project. Picture: Rebecca Marr
Leaders of the Big Orkney Song Project. Picture: Rebecca Marr
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AFTER the near-total sellout success of its landmark 30th outing last year, Orkney Folk Festival entered its fourth decade in resoundingly fine fettle, reflecting and proudly showcasing the remarkable fecundity of Orkney’s wider music scene today.

A variety of recent initiatives have dug deep into local history and traditions, including the Big Orkney Song Project, which collected vocal material directly from oral sources around the islands, a previously somewhat neglected legacy now bearing fruit in new settings and adaptations of this rediscovered material. A similarly dynamic relationship with the past underpinned tributes to two native sons during the festival – one commemorating celebrated songwriter Allie Windwick, the other a specially-curated “musical life story” of the great, previously unsung Arctic explorer and Hudson Bay Company prospector Dr John Rae, featuring among others the venerable Canadian Cree fiddler James Cheechoo, heir to a family tradition of transplanted Orcadian tunes dating back to the 17th century.

The aforementioned Big Orkney Song Project was a key contributing factor behind Orkney Folk: The Gathering, a showcase concert uniting several generations of home-grown talent, originally premiered at the 2011 festival. After January’s triumphant reprise at Celtic Connections, it’s now evolved into The Isles Gathering, a collaborative venture with the Shetland Folk Festival, where it was first performed three weeks ago. The homecoming Orkney leg saw the Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall overflowing with an audience of over 900, who were treated to three-plus hours of traditional and contemporary tunes and songs from a 100-strong cast. Among them were 12 Shetland musicians, a fiddle group and choir from one of Orkney’s rural schools, the Kirkwall City Pipe Band, and a crème-de-la-crème local “house band” including Kris Drever, award-winning fiddler Kristan Harvey and accordion legend Billy Peace, plus members of Saltfishforty and the Chair. Along with a wealth of lavish instrumental arrangements, other top standouts in a skilfully varied programme were original songs by several of the performers, notably Shetlander Lewie Peterson’s Between Weathers, a beautifully eloquent meditation on any islander’s often conflicted sense of home, and his compatriot Freda Leask’s haunting shipwreck ballad Bohus – both written in Shetland dialect. The occasion’s overall mood was gloriously encapsulated when the pipers joined a mass rendition of the late great Willie Hunter’s classic fiddle air, The Love O’ Da Isles.

Elsewhere around the festival, Blazin’ Fiddles were almost literally on fire, in terms of technical calibre and collective showmanship; Rachel Sermanni cast her compellingly fey, spooky, exquisitely woven spell over a whole new swathe of admirers; Saltfishforty again transformed broad Orcadian into a universal language, both musically and verbally, and fiddle/concertina/vocals duo the Blyde Lasses comprehensively charmed every audience they met. Dazzling Danish quartet Basco were definitely the weekend’s most popular discovery, combining unusual instrumentation – trombone and viola alongside fiddle, accordion and cittern – with tremendous ensemble verve and richly textured arrangements. Responding in kind to a veritable heroes’ welcome before their final set on Sunday, one member spoke for us all when he summed up their weekend’s adventures as “an amazing amount of fun – really just quite ridiculously cool”.