2019/6 – Compliments and community aplenty

We’ve definitely been missing our customary beautiful Orkney Folk Festival weather, with this prevailing rainy greyness showing the more contrary side to springtime in Scotland, testing revellers’ mettle even as it’s been welcomed by the farmers. Though at least yesterday’s relative climatic clemency saw a few brave souls playing tunes and quaffing outside, while the weekend’s first Open Stage session stayed dry – and at least the resumed chilly drizzle might somewhat have diluted today’s traditional alfresco carnage around the watering-holes of Stromness.

Given the pace of imbibing that’s already predominated all weekend, it was good to see those all-important local contacts and goodwill in play again this morning, when someone working overtime at Bank of Scotland messaged the festival’s Facebook page to say they’d refilled their Stromness cashpoint.

Amid today’s miserable weather, the volunteers staffing Orkney Amateur Swimming Club’s fundraising stall on the pier head, selling homemade soup, sandwiches, cakes and hot drinks, were definitely stiffening upper lips for the cause. Their spirits were boosted around lunchtime, though, thanks to a festival catering cock-up – ie no backstage provisions had been organised for The Gathering – hence a somewhat flurried committee member becoming their best-ever customer, spending around £40 from petty cash on sandwiches and fancies.

“It’s nice to see Billy Jolly made it,” observed Hoy native Sarah McFadyen during the Poozies’ closing Festival Club set last night, pointing to the local bard’s statue ensconced at the bar, before admitting, “He does freak me oot a bit, sitting there. . .” At which point Poozies fiddler Eilidh Shaw chipped in to inform their sellout audience: “You all look like Billy Jolly to me – and I mean that in the nicest possible way.”

There was more from this double-act later when McFadyen, reflecting on the band’s festival antics, divulged that, “We’ve been to bed three times today” – before Shaw continued, “It’s been the same every time, too: wake up, have a hot shower, go to the pub: it’s a demanding schedule. Luckily we’ve had years of practice.” This particularly peculiar Poozie timetable is explained by the fact that they started the day in Sanday, after playing there Friday night, boarding a 9am ferry for the 90-minute trip back to Kirkwall, then having to play a very long game of pacing themselves, until their midnight slot at the club. 

When that time eventually came, a rip-roaring, roof-raising set proved them to have played it to veritable perfection, with material ranging from the finest of fiddling frenzies, between Shaw and McFadyen again, to the latter’s wickedly brilliant dialect songwriting, skewering subject such as female domestic discontent and small-island inbreeding with pitch-black humour and mercilessly forthright accuracy, hilariously offset by her bandmates’ elegantly warped accompaniment.

Another of the Sanday party was singer-songwriter Jim Malcolm, whose performances on that island saw him cutting loose with a less familiar side to his artistry, righteously belting out ‘King of the Swingers’ on trumpet, with full band backing. He was also accompanied by daughter Beth, who’s following impressively in Dad’s musical footsteps, and who declared yesterday’s onboard song session on the ferry back – featuring another fine rendition of ‘Braw Sailin’ On the Sea’ – as her favourite festival moment to date.

For other audience members, contenders in this category included Lau’s aptly monumental performance in St Magnus Cathedral last night, with one happy tweeter afterwards signing off, “#bypassedyourearsandwentstraighttoyoursolarplexus”. In giving the band’s closing thank-yous, Lau’s Martin Green offered his own heartfelt compliments to the host event, calling it “not only one of the best festivals in the world, but one of the great cultural activities of the universe.” Another satisfied customer, on his maiden Orkney visit, tweeted similarly of his whole weekend: “the most amazing festival experience ever”, while for one local audience member, Stromness Community Centre was where it was at: “We love #FestivalClub! Kudos to whoever masterminded the community centre makeover for @OrkneyFolkFest, it’s magnificent!” 

The same person was one of many who also loved the venue’s minimal but ideal catering arrangements: “Goodness me the @OrkneyFolkFest pies at lunchtime club are to.die.for” – pies apparently home-made fresh each morning by their purveyors, necessitating cruelly early starts despite the preceding late nights, but at least these efforts were well appreciated, and may even have saved a few lives over the three nights. Yesterday’s Family Ceilidh was another unanimous hit, such that organisers have already decided to do it again, only bigger, next year.

Last night’s positively seismic Stomp at Stromness Academy, featuring young folk/funk sextet Heisk, local heroes The Chair and Shetland invaders The Revellers, wasn’t only an epic experience for all who were present, but thanks to an online live feed from the gig, was also enjoyed by watchers and listeners far beyond Orkney – variously as far afield as Arizona, the north-west Australian desert, Sweden, Norway, London, Amsterdam, Brisbane, San Diego, Ontario, an island in Lake Superior, and even Whalsay in Shetland. Ultimately, though, you really had to be there – that being, after all, kind of the whole point of this live music malarkey. . .