On the face it, the opening night of both the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe is a contender for the toughest day of the year for a local band to stage a big gig. With hundreds of shows opening across the city over the weekend, it would appear to be a tall order for any outfit to pull a half-decent crowd. But by the time Bwani Junction took to the stage of the Liquid Room to perform Paul Simon’s seminal Graceland album, any doubts about the wisdom of going ahead with the gig in the face of such competition had been dispelled. If fact, the Afrobeat outfit’s decision appeared to pay off handsomely, with a real festival atmosphere whipped up in the heat of the venue with rousing covers of hits including You Can Call Me Al, Boy in the Bubble and Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes.
At a time of intense and, at times, bitter debate over the state of Edinburgh’s music scene, and the problems venues and promoters complain of coming up against, the fact Bwani Junction managed to pack out their show was cheering to say the least. Especially when you consider the live music element of Edinburgh in August is arguably at its strongest level for many years.
Much of this is down to new EIF director Fergus Linehan. After testing the water last year with appearances from Franz Ferdinand and King Creosote, he has pulled out all the stops for the 70th anniversary line-up. Extended runs for Alan Cumming’s late-night cabaret and Karine Polwart’s EIF debut Wind Resistance have been among the early sell-outs in his programme. Tickets for the revival of Greg Lawson’s epic orchestration of Martyn Bennett’s Grit album are like gold dust. Young Fathers, Sigur Ros, Youssou N’Dour and Martin Green’s Flit project are among other shows expected to pull capacity crowds. And Mogwai – the Glasgow indie rock outfit who will be performing live at the Playhouse later this month – also provided the soundtrack to last night’s Deep Time event, the EIF’s biggest ever curtain-raiser.
It is all a far cry from a couple of years ago when it appeared that contemporary music was the poor relation of the Fringe. High-profile concert series like T on the Fringe, Planet Pop and Flux were distant memories, as were open-air concerts in Princes Street Gardens. Venues including the Bongo Club and the Picture House had vanished from the Fringe landscape. And it felt like only two or three major venues outwith the city centre were committed to putting on proper gigs.
The year-round multi-arts venue Summerhall faced a few brickbats when it launched a series of concerts, but it has gone from strength to strength and has a line-up this year boasting some of Scotland’s best singer-songwriters, including Siobhan Wilson, Kathryn Joseph and Rachel Sermanni, as well as Billy Bragg.
Arguably more significantly, a brand new dedicated music venue has arrived on the Fringe in the form of Merchants Hall – a historic New Town site providing a vital showcase for jazz, funk, soul, hip hop, pop and classical outfits. Previous mainstay the Queen’s Hall boasts one of its strongest line-ups for years, with Roddy Hart, King Creosote and Dean Owens appearing alongside cutting-edge trad bands like the Treacherous Orchestra and Rura programmed alongside its classical sets. Suddenly it seems like there is a remarkably eclectic session of live music to feast on over the next few weeks.
And if the city can somehow get the Ross Bandstand back hosting open-air concerts again, live music could seriously challenge the August domination of stand-up comedy.