Festival review: Burns & Beyond, various venues, Edinburgh

Rachael Sermanni
Rachael Sermanni
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If something felt familiar about the central event of Edinburgh’s inaugural Burns & Beyond festival, that was because we had seen it before; Burns & Beyond is programmed by Unique Events, the same company which built Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations until the contract was passed elsewhere, and the Culture Trail event which played on Saturday night – the evening after Burns Night itself – was a mirror of the company’s excellent Scot:Lands event, which formerly brought life and art to the city on the first day of January.

Burns & Beyond, various venues, Edinburgh ****

The other big spectacle of the six-day festival was the securing of a short residency for artist Luke Jerram’s touring art spectacle Museum of the Moon at St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile, with some special musical events planned around it, and there was something about a dark January night in Edinburgh which lent it a little extra sense of awe-striking beauty and eeriness. The artwork itself is a large, photo-real scale model of the moon, illuminated from within and hung from the ceiling.

Treated as a spectacle, we might simply think it looks incredible, and that opportunities for a selfie with a backdrop this striking don’t come along too often; treated as an artwork, we might look at it and wonder about the sheer arrogance of humanity in attempting to capture, contain and manipulate the breadth of nature, and about what great achievements and what dismal follies have occurred as a result.

Among Museum of the Moon’s accompanying music programme were two of Scotland’s most well-travelled musicians, whose styles form a junction where folk and alternative rock meet. On Wednesday evening, at the very civilised hour of 6pm, Strathspey’s Rachel Sermanni played as part of a duo with her regular pianist Jennifer Austin, and her music was as atmospheric and transporting as might have been hoped for in a venue this unique.

Noting that she had chosen songs for this reverberant space, Sermanni’s evocatively mature and measured vocal was deployed on Put Me in the River (embracing the theme of the evening, the audience were invited to make werewolf howls at the appropriate moments), a new “baby song in disguise,” in which words which might address a lover were actually written for her new baby when she was in the womb, and a take on Burns’ Sweet Afton to close.

On Friday evening, Idlewild singer Roddy Woomble – here playing as part of a chamber folk trio – marvelled at the thought of performing in the same forum as John Knox, invoked a real sense of Edinburgh with On Waverley Steps, and brought in his other band’s music with their uplifting American English.

St Giles’-by-moonlight was also in use on Saturday evening for the Culture Trail, the new Scot:Lands analogue, which saw the same inventive style of city festival adopted. With eight unique venues hosting themed concerts throughout the evening, paying audience members turned up at one and were given a map to seek out the others, forming a kind of artistic treasure hunt around the city.

It was a smaller, more music-focused version of the former event, but as before, there were two ways to approach it; as a guided walk around the venues, experiencing each by looking in for a few minutes and moving on; or as a full evening’s entertainment, with time to enjoy the full, cycling programme at perhaps a couple of the widely-spread venues. Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke and Martin Green hosted separate multi-artist events at St Giles’ and the Assembly Roxy, respectively, with comedy from the Gilded Balloon at their theatre on Rose Street, a bill of all-female DJs and musicians at the Caves, and Johnny “Pictish Trail” Lynch reimagining George Street’s Freemasons Hall as his home on the Isle of Eigg.

In celebration of Burns, however, it felt as though there was no more appropriate place to be than Greyfriars Kirk in the company of Edinburgh’s rebel music and spoken word night Neu! Reekie!, even though the bill was a redux version of one of their usual events. Co-founders Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson both performed – the former with works in typically, gorgeously dry Scots, heavy with black humour (had he been around now, Burns might have approved of an introduction which ran, “I don’t know if anyone here has ever masturbated in a castle…?”); the latter with a fiery, righteously preached version of Tam O’Shanter by candlelight, accompanied musically by Craig Lithgow on guitar and the saturnine dancers of the Kixx Collective.

Neu! Reekie!’s headliner was Kathryn Joseph, one of the most seductively unique singers in the UK right now, her shimmering, fragile voice and piano perfectly suited to this environment. To close, she reprised the version of Burns’ Scots Wha Hae which she performed on the Outlaw King soundtrack, a stunning finale which rang in the mind. It’s hard to tell how much Burns & Beyond was a tourist’s introduction to the city, in the way Scot:Lands was, or how much it was a jolly for local folk, but it certainly felt as though a marker has been laid down in terms of making Burns Night a significant event in Edinburgh’s calendar. - David Pollock