“I NEVER get to play a New Year’s Eve gig and the first one is in f***in’ Edinburgh,” marvelled Rory Graham – aka Rag ‘n’ Bone Man – as he raised a fist to his chest in thanks for the loyalty of a crowd who had stayed with him until the end. The bearded 32-year-old singer in mismatched red and blue Nikes and a badge-peppered denim jacket looked overawed to be part of such a huge celebration, although the new organisers of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay will have breathed a sigh of relief to see him going down so well with the audience.
Rag ‘n’ Bone Man / Nina Nesbitt / Declan McKenna, Concert in the Gardens, Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh ****
Established Fringe promoters Underbelly will have been aware that all eyes were on them following their takeover of the Hogmanay contract from Unique Events and the potentially toxic furore about unpaid “volunteer” workers of the past few weeks. So the booking of Rag ‘n’ Bone Man represented both a coup and a risk for the new regime. As the proud owner of one of 2017’s best-selling UK albums with his debut Human, he’s been as big a part of the year in music as Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift; but did an artist with relatively few hits and a moodily downbeat air about his signature songs have what it took for a party this big?
In the end, what clicked about this year’s Hogmanay celebrations was the way everything which had worked in the past was maintained with careful attention to detail, while everything around the fringes was agreeably accentuated. The retention of Stuart Nisbet as musical director was certainly an important part of the former, with due care taken to include buzzworthy young Scottish artists like 2017 Scottish Album of the Year Award winners Sacred Paws (on the Waverley Stage) and a lively set from Edinburgh’s Nina Nesbitt in Princes Street Gardens. Fast-rising 19-year-old singer-songwriter Declan McKenna followed, and his set felt very of-its-time, fusing a spiky approximation of the Libertines from someone who was too young to appreciate them first time around with some sleek and upbeat synth lines.
The newfound sense that the whole party could be experienced from the Gardens was the biggest improvement, with video feeds to entertainment elsewhere on Princes Street, including the sight and sound of fire poi and abseiling displays (local company Access Parkour were involved), Huey Morgan’s typically disco-fuelled DJ set on Castle Street, and the dazzlingly inspired Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 - with crowdsurfing inflatable unicorn - on the East End Stage.
With so much going on, less rode on Graham’s broad shoulders, and he was able to show a versatility that encompassed a retro, horn-led soul sound which recalled Hue & Cry, the ragged funk of new song Run With the Beast, and a stripped-back finale of the Rolling Stone’s Gimme Shelter. That he only has two truly ubiquitous songs in blues anthems Human and Skin was glossed over by the slickness of his set, yet the fact two such touchstones of 2017 were involved felt in tune with a Hogmanay now fiercely focused on how it presents itself to the rest of the world.