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Entries in Stornoway (1)


Hebridean Celtic Festival

So, a couple of months after the Great Escape, I headed some 700 miles north and west for my second festival of the year...

My first visit to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides for Heb Celt Fest and three days jam packed with music. Plus a very quiet Sunday - but we'll get to that later.

The headlines? A lovely festival and well worth the journey. My personal favourites were Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag, Ahab and Woodenbox With A Fistful of Fivers, but there was a whole load of other great music, interested audiences and generally a relaxed but enthusiastic vibe. The bands seemed really to enjoy playing there.

This was an amazing trip, deep into the heart of a strong and lively folk tradition: fiddles ubiquitous, pipes a frequent matter-of-fact component of the bands, a lot of Gaelic songs. There were some acts from south of the border, but this was essentially a Scottish festival - and a predominantly northern one within that.

I hadn't appreciated just how strong the Norse connection is here - I was informed by an excellent display at the museum around the Lewis chessmen (a selection scandalously only on loan from the British Museum - bugger the Elgin Marbles, repatriate the chessmen now, I say...) that it was only in the 1260s that the Islands recognised the King of Scotland rather than Norway as their overlord, and then only nominally. You know you're somewhere different. Incidentally, the exhibition also informed me about the pieces helping inspire Oliver Postgate's creation of the wonderful Noggin the Nog...

The streets are full of bars, the bars are full of music, the harbour's full of seals, the main festival site's a striking spot in the castle grounds overlooking the sea. This is a gig with a lot going for it.

As well as the main stage sets in a huge big-top there is a second tented stage, but a lot of the best listening is elsewhere. The local Gaelic radio station broadcast live from a church hall for two hours on the Thursday and Friday afternoons and we took in unplugged sets from four bands each day for free. Then at the end of the evening, from 11 into the early hours, the festival club takes over An Lanntair, the town's splendid theatre and arts centre, for a whole load more sessions from festival performers.

 On Thursday, Stornoway were top of the main stage bill. An irresistible choice, I guess, but they weren't really in their element there. I'd seen them on a small stage in Brighton last year and enjoyed them a lot. They've fleshed out their sound since then, adding a fiddle and beefing up their a arrangements. And there's much to admire on last year's Beachcomber's Windowsill album - though, for me, they've yet to come up with another song in the same league as 'Zorbing'. That song featured strongly in their engaging afternoon set for Radio Nan Gaidheal, but I'm afraid I'd moved on before they reached it in the evening set. Frontman Brian Briggs was reduced to saying to the noisy crowd 'I know you want to party, but we haven't got a set full of party songs', and then went on to compound the difficulty by playing a new, rather wet, song - 'Bigger Picture' - solo to a strummed guitar. Disappointing.

Before then, the Coal Porters had played their bluegrass well for the radio and in a concert at An Lanntair, before returning around midnight for a club set. A busy day for them. They're always good fun and fiddler/vocalist Carly Frey deserves special mention for her strong contribution. But for me the musical highlights of the day came from Ahab's storming small-stage set and a wonderful impromptu tea-time session we happened upon in McNeill's bar...

That session featured an amazing young red-haired fiddler, shouting changes to a willing guitarist, while spurring on a second fiddler and an assortment of accordionists - as well as someone at the back gamely trying to keep up on spoons, all the while cranking up the speed and intensity and playing some gorgeous stuff. Only later did we find out that it was Ross Couper, an extraordinary musician from Shetland and a mainstay of Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag, of whom more later.

Ahab are a sort of anglo-Americana band from Dalston, rather reminiscent (for listeners of a certain age) of Brinsley Schwarz, but with rather better vocals - four singers in the frontline, with strong harmonies. So maybe the comparison should be Fleet Foxes con cojones - or, if that's unfair, with much more onstage energy and attack. They were very obviously enjoying themselves and that was infectious - 'We may never leave the stage if you keep on reacting like that... I'll get my dinner sent up here later' commented Callum Adamson at one point, while Dave Burn took time out to take a video of the crowd (with Adamson orchestrating a friendly shout of 'Get lost, Dalston'.) They rounded off a good set of their own songs with a lively cover of Old Crow Medicine Show's 'Wagon Wheel'. So good taste, too. They've yet to make a full album but have a couple of decent EPs out - they're definitely worth watching.

In an overlapping set Seth Lakeman went down well on the main stage, but left me a little cold: he's a fine fiddler, but I find his singing and his songs rather characterless, and feel the energy level dropping when he straps on a guitar. It has to be said that most of the audience seemed not to agree with me - he went down very well.

Friday's music started well with radio sessions from Rura, Manran and a detachment of Peatbog Faeries (3 from the full 8-piece band) - they all played lively, fiddle-and-pipes-driven, traditionally-based sets. But what they each added to the traditional platform, in those sessions and later on the bigger stages, was instructive. For me, there are two main dangers when folk becomes folk-rock.

The first is bombast - portentous overtones of prog, a sort of pomp-folk. Which is where I'm afraid the Faeries went in the evening, the thudding drums and electronic keyboards and brass overwhelmed the subtlety that was still there in some of the playing and had predominated in the afternoon. I was reminded of Jean-Michel Jarre at some points - and that wasn't what I'd expected or wanted. Kan went the same way on the main stage the following evening - slick, fast, technically impressive - a folk Mahavishnu Orchestra. And then later, with fiddler Aidan O'Rourke apparently still needing 8 or 9 effects pedals to play a slot at the festival club, their set-up overran and then they ignored signals from the wings to make way for Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag's finale. Grrr.

The second danger is adding wet, generic, soft-rock songs as a diversion - and I'm afraid Manran sometimes slipped in that direction on the main stage, as did Saltfishforty the following night. It can be a relief when some of these bands stick to their strengths with strong instrumental sets - and both Manran and Saltfishforty's were great, it must be said.

But I don't want to come over too conservatively: Rura may have avoided the gooey trap by recently adding a rather edgier singer-songwriter to their line-up. He's still only doing a few numbers with them, but has a distinctive voice and seems to give them a useful extra dimension: the rest of the band can do the flat-out fast stuff very competently, but seem better to me on the more reflective, mid-paced pieces which his songs will fit into. Not sure about his rapping though...

And not all the good stuff started from a traditional base. Glasgow's Woodenbox With A Fistful Of Fivers stormed the second stage in the first slot on Friday night. I'd seen them play very well at the Great Escape, but they topped that in Stornoway - high energy from the off, honking brass, driving and inventive drumming, vocalist Ali Downer roaring away happily. A packed tent lapped it up and their forty minute slot seemed far too short. Their songwriting is strong too, and I'm now enjoying getting to know their album Home and the Wild Hunt - check them out if you can.

I've saved the best till last. What's better than a fiddler at a Hebridean folk festival? Seven fiddlers, of course - which is how Shetland's Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag took to the stage, along with keyboards, guitar bass and drums. They closed the small stage on Friday and played a truncated set at the club the following night and were absolutely storming on both occasions. It's a wonderful collective effort, but I have to highlight Ross Couper and Maurice Henderson, sawing away centrestage and driving the whole wonderful juggernaut on. Maurice, who does most of the talking, has the widest, infectious grin plastered across his face all through; Ross is driven at various points to leaping up and down on the spot. They kept finding another gear and cranking up a wildly enthusiastic audience reaction still higher. The band's name is one you'll need to make a conscious effort to remember, but - trust me - it's worth the effort. The Fullsceilidh bit is a very appropriate pun on 'fullscale', given the size of the band. I was trying all weekend to find the joke in Spelemannslag, which I assumed was a made-up word - but then Google enlightened me: it's the Norwegian name for this sort of band. There's a strong Scandinavian element in what they play, with a great set of polkas to the fore. Have a look at their website, which claims this sheep is a member of the band. Sadly, she didn't make the trip to Stornoway.

What a festival - do try it, if you can get there one year.

Oh, and Sunday? Well, Stornoway is shut. We thought we'd stay an extra day and do some exploring round the island. No buses. It poured with rain all day so hardly ideal for walking. Never mind, sit in a pub and read the papers. No papers, no shops open, most bars closed. Oh well, it was restful - and the Stornoway Balti House did stonkingly good business that evening, deservedly so. Another strong recommendation.