Music review: Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney

Gaelic star Julie Fowlis was in fabulous voice. Picture: Michael Gillen

Gaelic star Julie Fowlis was in fabulous voice. Picture: Michael Gillen

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BLESSED by four days of near-unbroken sunshine, the 34th Orkney Folk Festival once again saw the picturesque port of Stromness thronged with visitors from near and far.

Orkney Folk Festival | Rating: *** | Various venues, Orkney

Along with this year’s box office, the local chip shop and ice-cream sellers must surely have broken new sales records, as musicians and music-lovers fuelled up al fresco by the sun-sparkled harbour, in between the giddy round of concerts and pub sessions – including no fewer than 35 programmed festival events – that make these isles so magically full of noises every May.

Thursday’s opening show at Stromness Town Hall got off to a beatifically gentle and heartwarming start with a set by the Orkney Accordion and Fiddle Club, a much-loved mainstay of the islands’ music scene for nearly 40 years, which was voted Club of the Year at the 2015 Scots Trad Music Awards. In a line-up that ranged from teenagers to octogenarians, its members’ delight and pride at taking the Folk Festival stage was touchingly apparent, and their audience reciprocated with some of the night’s loudest applause.

Next up was that most unassuming of legends, Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll, who’d already treated some local primary kids to a performance that morning, and now proceeded comprehensively to demonstrate why she’s held in such rarefied esteem. Nimbly accompanied by guitarist Sean Óg Graham, she enriched her material with such a wealth of ornamentation, harmonic colour, expressive nuance and rhythmic sensitivity as to sound like two or three fiddlers at work.

Perhaps aptly, the evening’s final act, Session A9, featured another four – and four of Scotland’s finest, at that, backed up with equal finesse and honky-tonk swagger on piano, guitar and percussion.

The fiddle’s continuing prominence in contemporary folk music was further demonstrated by the contrasting mastery of Finland’s Frigg – another septet with a four-fiddle frontline, brilliantly and buoyantly reworking their native music with influences from bluegrass to heavy metal – and young Shetlander Maggie Adamson, accompanied by guitarist/singer Brian Nicholson, whose bravura set, alongside traditional tunes, took in a dazzling swing/jazz showpiece, The Hot Canary, and an instrumental Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Folk song always features strongly on the Orkney festival bill, with the vocal contingent headed here by Gaelic star Julie Fowlis, countering her tradition’s reputation for unremitting tragedy in an array of livewire, quicksilver puirt-à-beul numbers as well as haunting darker ballads, immaculately backed by a trio including Duncan Chisholm, whose exquisite fiddle tone at times uncannily resembled a second, harmonising voice.

Fowlis also featured in Saturday’s show hosted by the outstanding Orkney duo Saltfishforty, whose numbers swelled to a veritable big band by the end, with the likes of trombonist Rick Taylor, Frigg fiddler Esko Järvelä and local accordion legend Billy Peace also among their guests.

The pinnacle of an all-round thrilling performance came right at the end, when Fowlis was heard like you’ve never heard her before, absolutely belting out a verse of the old George Strait/Willie Nelson classic, Milk Cow Blues.

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