A Neu! way to connect with the Bard on Burns Night

“THE second time Kevin and I performed together, he read extracts from his then-forthcoming Fringe show Robert Burns: Not in My Name,” says Michael Pedersen of the writer Kevin Williamson, his partner in crime at Edinburgh’s foremost establishment-flouting cauldron of words, songs, ideas and good times, Neu! Reekie!

Michael Pedersen believes that Burns wouldve liked this years Neu! Reekie! line-up. Picture: Contributed
Michael Pedersen believes that Burns wouldve liked this years Neu! Reekie! line-up. Picture: Contributed

“He surfaced clad in an orange tracksuit top and what looked like knock-off Oakley sunglasses, announcing, ‘This is how Burns would have dressed if he’d been aboot the day’.”

So when the pair say that this latest edition of Neu! Reekie! – the first to be held in its spiritual home of Leith – is an alternative Burns Night, they mean it’s an alternative to the well-handled perception of Burns rather than the reality.

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“It seems fawning,” says Pedersen, a poet himself, “but [Williamson’s performance] really did cause me to re-explore what I thought I knew about Burns. I think it’s a process a lot of Scottish poets go through – not fully understanding Burns until you start to recontextualise him. Cutting away the teatowel and shortbread tin themes and pondering the socialist, even revolutionary, implications of the works.”

Central to this edition of Neu! Reekie! is a reimagining of Tam O’Shanter by Williamson, which he describes as “a dark version emphasising the grisly and dramatic elements to the text. I’m joined by a dancer, Tess, who interprets the more raucous sexual elements of the mid to latter sections of the poem, with Craig Lithgow on acoustic guitar and Dave McFarlane on fiddle interpreting the piece musically”.

There will also be music from Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson and the Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly, an appearance by TS Eliot Prize winner and “arguably Ireland’s foremost living poet” [Pedersen’s words] Ciaran Carson, and the release of the sole cask of Aberfeldy Distillery’s special 21-year-old Neu! Reekie! whisky to accompany the haggis, neeps and tatties.

“I think to an extent all the performers will be taking Burns Night on board,” says Pedersen of the other performers’ plans, “although with no stipulation set out by us. This cultural extravaganza’s happening in the Great Bard’s honour. That’s the starting point, and where it winds in and out the old-style paradigm is the bit we do best.

“I like to think Burns would have tipped his hat at Neu! Reekie! We’d have done our darndest to get him onside, that’s for sure.”

• The Neu! Reekie! Alternative Burns Bash is at Pilrig St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh, on Saturday