Gig review: Orkney Folk Festival, Various Venues

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PEOPLE were venting their joy in various ways over the course of Orkney’s 30th folk festival – a landmark birthday crowned in advance by 2011’s Event of the Year prize at the Scots Trad Music Awards – including, for instance, a brief display of Cossack dancing from the young Shetland band Vair, midway through the mighty pub session they hosted on Saturday.

For headliner Eddi Reader, onstage at Stromness Town Hall the same night, the venting involved literally jumping up and down with glee, as local guest Kris Drever concluded a sublime rendition of Sandy Wright’s misty-eyed love song Shining Star – a warm-up for his performance of the same at Reader’s forthcoming nuptials this week.

The dazzling Danish fiddler Harald Haugaard summed up his feelings in the single, longingly uttered word “oatcakes”, as he wistfully imagined the benefits for his homeland (also including ownership of Highland Park distillery) if only its present monarch would retract her long-ago predecessor’s gift of Orkney and Shetland to Scotland.

Teenage Orcadian six-piece Broken Strings (Open Stage winners at Celtic Connections last year) were less visibly exuberant at first: the opening slot at Saturday’s late-night Festival Club show was a very big gig for them, as could be seen from their faces’ furrowed concentration.

But this seriousness of purpose paid off handsomely in their sparkling instrumental medleys, and in vociferous applause from an audience packed with justly proud parents and relatives. (Granny was even included in the closing thank-yous for not disgracing the accordionist by dancing at the front.)

A very different but no less prime example of home-team talent was singer and songwriter Jo Philby, an adoptive islander, originally from southern England, who featured on Friday’s gem of a bill in Finstown, a few miles north-east of Stromness – where the ultimate fine dining experience was on offer pre-gig from the weekend fish and chip van, parked beside a sun-sparkled sea, complete with local pipe band to entertain the queue.

Philby’s affectingly understated mix of originals and covers, sweetly accompanied and harmonised by her four-piece band, was followed by the silky, frisky, country-dance strains of Arbroath legends the Foundry Bar Band, cajoled out of retirement specifically for the festival.

Lancashire-born songstress Edwina Hayes charmed equally with her deliciously ditsy chat and beautifully articulated country-folk ballads, while the latest incarnation of the Battlefield Band rounded off the night in an authentic blaze of glory, firing on all cylinders and then some.

Back at the Town Hall, after a delectable first-half set from Drever’s specially-convened Festival Quartet – with top Orkney fiddler Kristin Harvey, singer/fiddler Bella Hardy, and Eamonn Cooyne on banjo and tenor guitar – Reader was exultantly in her element, making the most of the venue’s renowned vocal acoustics, in material that ranged from a goosebump-raising Bell, Book and Candle to Bessie Smith’s Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair, the latter positively dripping with raunch and gusto.

Reader was subsequently spotted stripping the willow with husband-to-be John Douglas amidst an impromptu small-hours ceilidh at the Festival Club – as a pre-wedding warm-up, Orkney’s 30th birthday celebrations would take some beating.

Rating: *****