2019/4 – The Club and Compères

After a swift post-gig pint last night, it was hard to tear oneself away from a Stromness Hotel session featuring members of Kinnaris Quintet and The Poozies, but there was in fact only one place to be: the brand-new Festival Club, in the all-but unrecognisable main games hall of Stromness Community Centre. 

(The Kinnaris/Poozies merger, incidentally, was anticipated by both bands when they shared the same boat over on Thursday, though they still seemed torn at that point whether to name themselves The Kinnoozies or Poonaris.) 

Along at the club, though, the place was positively abuzz with people marvelling at its transformation, and agreeing that the whole expanded set-up worked a treat, from ambience to core practicalities. Table service from the bar was efficient and unobtrusive – to the point where thirsty performers onstage were getting envious – and the new, specially blended Orkney Foy gin was clearly a big hit. 

Talking of gin aficionados, the club’s ever-dapper regular compère, Mr Kevin Macleod, had even gone to extra grooming lengths for the occasion, adding a particularly impressive horizontal twirl to the ends of his tasteful facial topiary. This apparently follows his discovery of a wonder-product for the purpose called Hungarian Moustache Wax – upon whose tin it states: ‘Made in Germany’. Go figure. 

In addition to the cabaret seating, the new club layout left room for folk to stand and mingle, while acoustic draping plus a top-notch PA team achieved that after-hours Holy Grail of excellent, vibrant front-of-house sound, which nonetheless facilitated low-level audience chat. Not that there was much of the latter while the new/old super-trio of Dermot Byrne, Éamonn Coyne and John Doyle paid virtuosic tribute to their shared creative roots in the music of south-west Donegal, inducing – as Coyne observed – a level of rapt attention that belied both the lateness of the hour and the busyness of the bar-staff . “This is the festival club,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to be listening at all.”

The project’s labour-of-love character shone through in a set of mostly blithe and gladsome tunes, sublimely executed – punctuated only by a somewhat less cheery song from Doyle, of which we didn’t quite catch the full story, but it seemed to concern a bunch of people dying, ostensibly from a combination of cholera and overwork, after which it transpires that some of them were in fact murdered. . . 

Moving swiftly on, however, he followed up with a tale of his own Donegal family connections, specifically a sheep-farming uncle, remembered as having once ‘entertained’ a favourite daughter’s gentleman caller by getting him to help with castrating the young rams. 

Deservedly introduced by Macleod as “real proper legends”, Four Men and a Dog then held court to a joyous heroes’ welcome back to Orkney, having last played here in 2011, serving up equal parts blistering prowess and belly-laugh hilarity, clearly revelling in their return.

 “It’s such a pleasure and a privilege to be back playing in these parts,” said banjo deity Gerry O’Connor. “So we really need to make a point of enjoying it while we’re here.” We suspect that this won’t require the concerted effort he seemed to be envisaging – and that bodhran ace Gino Lupari would agree: “It’s going to be good auld craic,” he opined. “I can feel it in my bones.”

While we’ve certainly no reason to dispute this prediction, it should be noted that some of Lupari’s taller tales may be less reliable, prone as he is to prefacing them with the decidedly slippery promise, “This is true as God.” Take that as you will – and entirely at your own risk.

On the subject of festival compères there was a still a vacancy in that department, until late morning today, for this afternoon’s Thank Folk It’s Friday concert, with festival director Bob Gibbon slated to step up if need be – but then he met Shetland Folk Festival committee member Mhari Pottinger in the Co-op. (She later claimed to have been shopping for ‘muesli and fruit’, though it may have looked suspiciously like prosecco and gin.) 

She was, however, foolish enough to admit – to a very busy man – to having time on her hands; supposedly planning on pacing herself ahead of a Song Club slot with her band Laeverick, so could hardly complain upon finding herself promptly roped in to introduce Còig, Gnoss and Heisk at the Town Hall. After a few Foys at the Lunchtime Club beforehand, she got plenty of mileage throughout the show from the Bob’s rashness in recruiting a Shetlander – with their distinctive if often ambiguous pronunciation of the work ‘folk’ – to MC this particularly-named concert: her strenuous, if not always successful efforts to maintain a Queen’s English accent enhanced the afternoon’s entertainment yet further.

She was particularly chuffed to welcome on Cape Bretoners Còig, having hosted them at the Shetland festival a few years back, on one of their first ever UK trips. Orkney, too, has always loved Cape Breton music, and after an electrifying set, resulting in a standing ovation, it was a hard call as to whether band or audience were more blown away by the other.

What with this show and the aforementioned Lunchtime Club – another packed house and fine triple bill, featuring Tom Ashman, Benedict Morris with Pablo Lafuente and Conal McDonagh, and Kinnaris Quintet – today’s and tonight’s festival programme, adding together scheduled running-times and inevitable slight overruns, would have enabled you to see ten solid hours of music. There’s a similar supersized serving on offer again tomorrow: hats off to anyone doing a full four-concert shift.

The quality of Glasgow fiddler Benedict Morris’s performance – as the reigning Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, having won the contest at Celtic Connections in January – can be gauged by the response from two of Kinnaris Quintet’s three fiddlers, overheard heading backstage while agreeing, ‘That was amazing!’ His accompanying piper and whistle player, Conal McDonagh, deserves extra brownie-points for going onstage straight from the airport, having just flown up from Glasgow this morning. Morris and Lafuente did the soundcheck without him, then he just had a line-check during the changeover: sterling work altogether.

The latter band’s own headline set captivated listeners afresh, not only with the multi-layered sophistication and raw-edged verve of their music, but also fiddler Aileen Gobbi’s lo-tech random set-list generator – one of those schoolgirl-style folded paper contraptions, by which choices were made according to numbers picked by the audience: proper old-school.