2019/2 – T-Minus 1

As the last pre-festival day ticks down towards tomorrow’s half-dozen opening concerts – featuring 22 different acts, and following four morning schools visits – one of the last quotable comments from our committee source, gleaned last night, was, “I wish we still had another week – or at least that it was still only midday today. . .” This was, however, swiftly and emphatically followed by, “But it’ll all be grand.”

The commonest questions amongst those of us still Stromness-bound, meanwhile, concern the new Festival Club: what’s it like/what’s the sketch/what’s happening?

Firstly – to scotch any contrary rumours – there has been no falling-out whatsoever between the club’s former home, the Stromness Hotel, and the folk festival. The transformation of Stromness Community Centre into a stylish late-night cabaret joint is a mutually happy solution to the hotel’s struggles in recent years to feed all its hungry customers, amidst not only twice-daily club concerts, but thrice-daily/continuous sessions in the main bar (for which the carry-on will be as usual).

Squeezing in proper scran in amongst all the music can be acutely at a premium during this festival, so the hotel’s redeployment of the club space as a dining room, and reported plans to run a buffet-style weekend carvery (fast proper food!) alongside restaurant/bar meals, are only to be applauded. With the festival banner already bedecking the building’s familiar frontage, its rooms stuffed full of musicians for the duration, and those non-stop sessions in store, it’s still front and centre in the time-honoured cornerstone triumvirate – together with the Royal and the Ferry Inn – that constitute the festival’s social hub (a circuit that can resemble an onshore Orcadian counterpart to the Bermuda Triangle).

Meanwhile, along at Stromness Community Centre, just up behind the Town Hall, a remarkable metamorphosis has been under way. . .

The space started life as a bare games hall, its facilities amounting to just two 13-amp sockets. It’s been carpeted. A stage has been built across one long side, creating a wide auditorium with nice short sightlines. Generators have been hired in, the ceiling beams’ load-capacity tested, and a PA and lighting rig ‘flown’ on specially mounted trusses. The room is now fully lined with acoustic/blackout drapes borrowed from the Pickaquoy Centre, hung around newly-installed guidewires, for optimum sonic and aesthetic effect.

For ambience, there are cabaret tables, fairy-lights, Chinese lanterns and decorative vintage instruments, complemented by refreshments from a bar custom-built of two old upright pianos, offering a hand-picked array of local and artisanal libations, including perennial-fave festival ale Orkney Session. 

Also on tap, among at least 15 different craft gins, is this year’s special festival batch from Orkney Distilling, a limited edition of their popular Kirkjuvagr tipple, named Orkney Foy. According to its tasting notes, “citrus from calamondin complements a melody of locally grown botanicals, including angelica, aronia, borage, meadowsweet, burnet rose and Ramanas rose. We’ve also got some woody tones in there too.” 

Consulting on the above blend, and taste-testing the final product, ranked among the committee’s less onerous pre-festival duties – and you, too, can drink in a good cause (responsibly, of course), with a cut from both the beer and gin’s sales around Stromness over the weekend being donated to festival funds.

Additionally, the festival club will be offering waiter/ess service, with drinks menus and order-pads on each table, and the eco-friendly option of reusable glasses, complete with washing facilities behind the bar. With the aid of some scaffolding, a disabled access ramp has been constructed (over a drystane wall and via the fire escape), while a near-lifesized papier maché figure of Orkney living legend Billy Jolly – a tribute to the moothie/storytelling icon fashioned by artist Jan Miller – will proudly preside throughout (after spending its customary year giving absent-minded committee members a fright whenever they visit the folk festival store).

As well as transporting both the space and your Festival Club experience to a whole new level, the revamped hall’s capacity is half as big again as the previous room’s, which is likewise all to the good, for both audience comfort and last-minute ticket-buyers. In making the move, the folk festival is also hoping perhaps to lead by example, and encourage the staging of other events there at different times of year. 

Tune in to BBC Radio Orkney tomorrow morning, when they’ll be broadcasting live from the venue, to hear their verdict.

At time of writing, this pumpkin-to-Cinderella’s coach conversion was running a peedie bit behind, as is the way – another thing not helped by tomorrow’s airport strike and today’s resultant flurry of early-bird arrivals. Hence last night’s all-hands callout to the committee, three-quarters of whom put in an extra advance late shift to get the preparations caught up –  having already put in a daytime stint, getting trained in its fire procedures.

Other last-minute nitty-gritty graft included finalising 52 different acts’ individual weekend itineraries – transport, soundchecks, stage-times, catering arrangements, session slots, hotel confirmations and homeward airport runs for every last band member and technician. . . 

Performers are increasingly encouraged to receive these painstakingly tailor-made manuals electronically – as opposed to being given, then promptly ditching/ignoring, the traditional artists’ ‘pack’ – both for the planet’s sake, and for ready reference on phones. Some still favour print, however – and all still need physical passes and wristbands, all of which need organised for each individual act, and some people can get quite narky if the name printed on their pass isn’t spelled exactly right. 

Also on the logistical front, further to Monday’s mention of publicity paraphernalia, we’re told that the weekend’s operational documents now include a designated ‘Banner Planner’, plotting the movements of said branding items throughout the weekend. The task has been abetted by a bunch of new promotional banners this year, sporting new designs – a buying decision similarly prompted by some banners last time needing shuttled between three gigs each a day. Such is your volunteer organisers’ devoted attention to detail, too, that said planner includes instructions for some gigs about not putting old and new banners onstage together – ‘cos they’d clash.

Such are the glamorous, far-out, rock’n’roll things you’ll find yourself fixating about if you organise a music festival.

As referenced above, the strike tomorrow has bumped many festival travel plans to today, with a resulting influx currently en route that could well put paid to any locals’ hopes of a last early night – or Flattie Bar denizens’ of a final folk-free interlude. With Four Men and a Dog, Dermot Byrne and Cara Dillon plus family all arriving on one plane, these advance festivities look likely to take a decidedly Hibernian turn.

And as was also alluded to in Monday’s bulletin, the weekend’s contingent of Shetland visitors – always an unmistakable presence – is looking like even more of an invasion than usual. Many of the fond farewells after those islands’ folk festival, earlier this month, concluded with “See you in Orkney!” – such that a good few Shelties who can’t make it are planning temporary unfriending of all their Facebook buddies who can, to keep the coming spree off their timelines. Thanks again to the strike, their advance southward party hits Stromness tonight – due in off the boat from Lerwick around midnight, Loganair’s loss having been NorthLink’s gain – doubtless hell-bent on hammering the last nails into any putative quiet night’s coffin.

Not to be outdone by the new club, meanwhile, the Stromness Hotel has been undergoing various bits of sprucing-up itself – just to warn its long-time habitués, so they’re not too thrown on first arrival. Most immediately striking is a bright, handsome new wallpaper job throughout the building’s graciously-proportioned entrance hall: in the words of one committee member, “You get to the revolving door that doesn’t revolve, and it all looks totally different.”