Review: Hebridean Celtic Festival, Isle of Lewis

LIKE MANY UK festivals, the Heb Celt was due a sunny one, and the 18th outing for the Western Isles’ flagship event got that with bells on.

For the afternoon acts, in fact, the experience looked somewhat disconcerting: the festival’s picturesquely tented, tree-lined, two-stage main arena is constructed more with lashing rain than baking heat in mind, capable of sheltering much of the weekend’s annual 15000-ish attendance - but with most folk recumbently soaking up sounds and rays outside, playing the vast main marquee in particular must have felt like addressing an almost literal black hole. It seemed fractionally to be getting to Manchester five-piece The Travelling Band, as they amped up volume and tempo towards the end of their teatime set, but a distinctly frustrated edge to their bellowed exhortation, “Time to wake up!”, was understandable, given their soulful, soaraway anthems and big catchy choruses’ adroitness - underpinned by classily diverse guitar work - at hitting the festival sweet spot.

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The same was achieved for most of the faithful assembled at the feet of headliner Van Morrison, whose slickly efficient 90-minute set, anchored by an excellent 9-piece band, roamed across the rootsy, bluesy, soul/jazz-inflected territory on which his curmudgeonly legend is founded, wrapping up with a string of classic cuts - Moondance, Brown-Eyed Girl, Gloria - before The Man exited stage left at exactly 10pm. No encore, natch, but apparently this was him positively overflowing with bonhomie, according to the misanthropic standards in which he’s somehow indulged.

Capercaillie’s appearance the next night was both marvellously, movingly apt - at a hugely successful Gaelic-rooted festival, whose contemporary cultural context the band has been so pivotal in shaping - and absolutely thrilling, while Saturday bill-toppers The Red Hot Chilli Pipers comprehensively demonstrated the awesome force of precision-machined, unapologetically populist Celtic showbiz. The similarly various likes of Lau; dream-team US/UK pairing Darrell Scott and Danny Thompson; wittily unpredictable Dundee rising stars Anderson, McGinty, Webster, Ward & Fisher; sizzling latter-day stringband The Hot Seats, and brilliantly wayward local bard Iain Morrison featured elsewhere in a characteristically select yet wide-ranging Heb Celt programme, highlighting the curatorial skill that’s always been its fundamental strength, whatever the weather.