Music review: Orkney Folk Festival

It’s yet more proof of Scottish folk music’s phenomenal current fecundity that a project originated in and specifically showcasing its furthest peripheries, the Northern Isles and the Outer Hebrides, can result in such a world-class performance as Between Islands, which premièred on Saturday at the 37th Orkney Folk Festival, and would be an ornament to any concert stage on the planet.

The Kinnaris Quintet

Orkney Folk Festival, various venues *****

Curated by Stornoway’s An Lanntair arts centre, it brought together stellar Uist singers Julie Fowlis and Kathleen MacInnes, Orkney duo Saltfishforty and Shetland singer/fiddler Jenny Keldie – plus plenty more besides – in a rich and often moving collaborative programme of songs and tunes, old and new, ranging stylistically from newly-penned folk-pop to venerable Gaelic ballads, bluegrassy instrumentals to vintage Orcadian swing-jazz.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Themes of seafaring and longing for home emerged naturally from the pooled material, as languages and dialects were swapped and shared, together with a gorgeous wealth of iridescent vocal harmonies.

The extended line-up also included visiting Shetland song group Laeverick and sundry other leading Orkney players, while around 40 local primary and senior schoolchildren, serving as string section and backing choir, heartwarmingly framed the core cast’s outstanding artistry amid a palpably living island culture.

Having kicked off last Thursday, the festival’s full programme featured well over 30 concerts across Orkney – virtually all sold out - plus thrice daily scheduled sessions in Stromness’s three main pubs: a non-stop musical array spanning up to 13 hours each day, and unofficially extending well into the wee hours after the actual concerts have finished.

With more than 50 acts on the bill, travelling from as far as Canada, organisers this year faced the additional challenge of Thursday’s air traffic control strike at Highlands and Islands Airports, compounded on the day by a broken-down ferry and several cancelled sailings, but by hook or crook they managed to get everybody here, even if it did mean some performers arriving onstage straight from the airport.

Among the headliners on a truly mouth-watering bill – even by this festival’s illustrious standards – legendary veterans Four Men and a Dog showed the youngsters how it’s done with their evergreen, ever-pyrotechnic blend of Irish trad and Americana, while trailblazing trio Lau gave a specially-customised performance of their new fifth studio album, Midnight and Closedown, at Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral. Positively revelling in the reverb amid this splendidly soaring space, they delivered a magically immersive 90 minutes of mind-altering musical adventure.

An exceptionally strong female presence in the line-up included star turns from new Scottish chamber-folk powerhouse Kinnaris Quintet, matching intricate, multi-layered sophistication with visceral excitement, and the perennially fabulous Poozies, whose current cross-generational line-up maintains their sparkling standard of vivacious, inventive instrumentals, while giving fresh pride of place to Orkney native Sarah McFadyen’s brilliant, blackly comic dialect songwriting, arranged by the four-piece with note-perfect deadpan elegance.

Among other contrasting highlights were barnstorming Cape Breton quartet Còig, the peerlessly pearlescent singing of Ireland’s Cara Dillon, the tripartite Irish-trad masterclass of Dermot Byrne, Éamonn Coyne and John Doyle, and Malinky’s richly seasoned treatments of Scots song, all contributing their share to another vintage Orkney festival – an event justly lauded by Lau’s Martin Green as “one of the great cultural activities of the universe”. - Sue Wilson