Gig review: Orkney Folk Festival

The Orkney Folk Festival is a haven for all lovers of traditional fiddling, with fiddler Mike Vass to the fore this time round
The Orkney Folk Festival is a haven for all lovers of traditional fiddling, with fiddler Mike Vass to the fore this time round
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On board the good ship MV Hamnavoe, which plies the Pentland Firth between Scrabster and Stromness, there’s a decorative glass panel inscribed with quotations from poet and local hero George Mackay Brown, one of them defining “the essence of Orkney magic” as “silence” and “loneliness”. Neither, it must be said, is much in evidence over the four days and nights of the annual Orkney Folk Festival, which nonetheless abounds in magic of different kinds – first and foremost the musical variety.

With visiting acts drawn widely from around the world and across the stylistic spectrum, featuring alongside an equal quantity of home-grown musicians, it’s an event that inspires its performers – with the warmth of the islands’ welcome, the diversity and quality of programming, and the mightiness of the craic – to give of their very best.

Hence the spectacle this year of headlining Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon receiving not one but two standing ovations on Friday, at both her lunchtime and evening concerts, after attaining freshly dazzling heights of artistry in her current duo with the phenomenal pianist/guitarist Alan Connor. The following afternoon found Shannon right in the thick of a thronged pub session, nigh-on beside herself with delight, meanwhile encouraging star-struck local youngsters to join in too.

Another of the weekend’s myriad highlights was the world première of Out of My Own Light, a multi-media creation by Orkney fiddler and photographer Louise Bichan, combining newly-composed music, film, photography, spoken word and archive recordings to recount the remarkable story of her paternal grandmother, who in 1950 spent several months travelling alone across Canada, as she tried to decide which of two ardent suitors back home to marry. Also featuring fiddler/guitarist Mike Vass, Jennifer Austin on piano, cellist Su-a Lee and double bassist Euan Burton, Bichan’s vividly expressive and evocative chamber-folk score underpinned a wonderfully engaging, absorbing illumination of past lives and family ties.

An arrangement of Nessun Dorma played on fiddle, accordion and theremin might seem to be stretching even today’s elastic definitions of folk music, but it’s all in a day’s work for those much-loved merry pranksters the New Rope String Band, whose uniquely imaginative brand of musical/physical comedy once again had audiences weeping with laughter wherever they went. Electrifying onstage antics were also a hallmark of the excellent Canadian old-time combo Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys, whose frontman – aptly nicknamed “Crazy Legs” – combined high-speed, hire-wire fiddle mastery with spectacular simultaneous stepdancing.

Fiddle aficionados were thoroughly spoilt for choice all weekend, what with the gorgeously multilayered tones and textures of Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, the brilliantly vivacious Orkney twin-sister duo of Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley, the almost orchestral sumptuousness of fiddle-led Shetland five-piece Haltadans and the arresting Balkan/Celtic blend of Hungarian-born Jani Lang, who wields the instrument in rising-star outfit Dallahan. And outwith the 32 official festival concerts, the street and bars of Stromness resounded with tunes and conviviality from noon right through to the wee hours, once again affirming the event as one of the finest sprees on the circuit.