2019/1 – Advance Preparations

It’s the start of festival week, and – as hundreds of musicians and music-lovers prepare to set course for Stromness, from most other points of the compass – the final countdown has begun for your dozen-strong, all-volunteer organising committee. Their last full pre-festival meeting takes place tonight – an occasion matter-of-factly summed up by one member as “usually a mix of exasperation, hilarity and despair” – before they’re all off and running, firmly in top gear, to get this show on the road. The big PA truck arrives off the Aberdeen boat tomorrow night, and then it’s truly all systems go. 

Having bade farewell to their day-jobs for the duration, the committee will then be jointly, severally and actively responsible for four very full festival days and nights, comprising no fewer (and arguably more) than 45 individual events, featuring over 50 acts, across an Orkney-wide scattering of 19 different venues. Just to encourage the odd spare thought as you relish your weekend’s revelry, the range of tasks they’ll be overseeing or directly carrying out includes, but most certainly isn’t limited to, the following lengthy list:

  • Multiple daily pickups/greetings/drop-offs at both airport and ferry terminal.
  • Artists’ transport to and from soundchecks, gigs, accommodation, schools visits, workshops, sightseeing. . .
  • PA and lighting installation and get-outs for all those 19 venues.
  • Up to 10 soundchecks a day, each involving up to six acts.
  • Stage management.
  • Compèring.
  • Stewarding.
  • Ticket-collecting.
  • Co-ordinating other volunteers.
  • Co-ordinating festival banners and gobos, plus raffle tickets/floats/prizes.
  • Merchandise sales.
  • Raffle and merch accounting after every gig, plus distributing merch money to artists.
  • Feeding artists in out-of-town venues – potentially including the coeliac, the pescetarian, the paleo, the carbohydrate-free. . .
  • Finding artists who’ve got swept away in the sessions when they’re due elsewhere for a gig.
  • Bodily rousting artists still comatose in their beds when they’re meant to be at a soundcheck, or on a bus, or going home (there’s a reason as many as possible are housed in the Stromness Hotel).
  • Not to mention organising – and possibly playing in – a certain infamous football fixture.

Just to make sure they don’t get bored, several committee members will also be performing, in various capacities, over the weekend – not least of course director Bob Gibbon, accordion anchorman of mighty home posse The Chair, who’ll be going head-to-head with Shetland’s The Revellers at Saturday night’s Stomp at Stromness Academy. (Whispers are already afoot of some truly unforgettable costumes being plotted for that particular encounter.)

Mind you, the committee’s big logistical baptism of fire came early this year, following the announcement, less than a fortnight ago, of this Thursday’s air-traffic control strike across all Highland and island airports – called for the very day the folk festival had 25 artists and crew booked on incoming flights, from five different airports, almost all of them due onstage that very night. 

“As nightmare scenarios go, it rated quite high,” acknowledges our same understated committee member. “It was a bit of a living hell for a couple of days” – he being one of the three chiefly responsible for solving the crisis, literally within that timescale, successfully rearranging all bar one inbound journey, a feat for which he gratefully shares the credit with Loganair, the artists involved and local MSP Liam McArthur, for their collective assistance and adaptability.

While some have been switched to overland/ferry routes, most of the first day’s arrivals have been rescheduled for Wednesday. For the festival team, this obviates one advance source of anxiety – Four Men and a Dog’s original itinerary included an eight-hour stopover at Inverness, which they’d planned to while away at Blazin’ Fiddler Bruce MacGregor’s celebrated namesake hostelry there – but inevitably portends a somewhat livelier and later eve-of-festival gathering than usual, which could prove a mixed blessing. An inconvenient tour-party occupying the Stromness Hotel added to the challenges of sorting out the requisite extra accommodation, which will entail a fair few artists flitting between rooms come Thursday morning, but (almost) everyone will be here, and all will have a bed.

While making Wednesday much busier overall (this also being the main day allocated to decking out the new Festival Club, of which more in due course), the strike has ended up taking some of the pressure off Thursday, leaving only arrivals by ferry to deal with, and allowing more time for opening-night soundchecks. Gluttons for punishment that they are, though, the committee have taken the chance, with artists arriving early, to expand the schedule of schools visits, which between Thursday and Friday will see pupils in Tankerness, Glaitness, Stromness and Sanday variously entertained by Heisk, Coig, the Peter Wood Shetland Dance Band and The Poozies.

Regardless of all the tribulations, the 37th Orkney Folk Festival is shaping up to be another record-breaker in terms of ticket sales – so if you haven’t yet organised your weekend’s entertainment, delay no further to avoid disappointment. 

In amongst the event’s busiest programme to date, Saturday afternoon sees its maiden foray into theatre, with a performance of John McGrath’s iconic ‘ceilidh play’ The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, in its new touring production by the National Theatre of Scotland.

The show itself is sold out, but the company are also holding two associated free workshops in Kirkwall, on Thursday and Friday, as part of the NTS’s ongoing Engine Room scheme, which “aims to fuel creative talents, providing skills, networks and ideas development opportunities to support artists across Scotland”. Both are open to practitioners of any performance art-form.

Thursday’s session offers an introduction to writing for live performance (https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/production/masterclass-writing-for-non-writers/), while on Friday festival headliners Lau deconstruct the creation of their song ‘She Put On her Headphones’ – which began life as a short story – to explore the possibilities of cross-fertilisation between art-forms (https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/production/engine-room-masterclass-she-put-on-her-headphones-with-lau/). Friday night in Kirkwall, meanwhile, sees the NTS expanding Orkney’s fabled folk-session dynamic with the Engine Room Session: “An evening of new scratch performances, cross-art-form experiments, and bold open mic manoeuvring” (https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/production/engine-room-session/).