2019/5 – Sessions and Islanders

It’s getting to that stage of the game where day and night start blurring perilously into one another – partly thanks to seeing concerts at all hours of the afternoon and evening; partly to after-hours tunes continuing well into the morning, followed by going to bed in daylight.

Even before a note of music was played at this afternoon’s Between Islands concert at Stromness Town Hall, compère Kenny Ritch had the audience wholly in the palm of his hand, with a superb opening display of prime Orkney humour. His ‘housekeeping’ announcements included the usual confirmation that no fire-drills were planned – “Because we’d be a pretty rubbish committee if we’d planned one in the middle of a concert” – and an effusive big-up for the extra toilets commandeered to cope with interval demand.

It’s come to something when a hard-working local compère finds himself being heckled by a fellow Orcadian act, but as Kenny moved on to introducing the Between Islands project – initiated by An Lanntair arts centre in Lewis, and here featuring stellar Uist singers Julie Fowlis and Kathleen Macinnes – the shouting began from beside the stage: “Do it in Gaelic!” This attempted verbal sabotage continued, but Kenny pressed manfully on, until finally provoked into the quietly emphatic riposte, “Shut it, Douglas.” For it was of course home-grown heroes Saltfishforty waiting in the wings, to host an outstanding two-hour collaborative showcase of music and musicians from the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.

The inter-island theme continues tomorrow at 2019’s latest incarnation of Orkney Folk Festival project The Gathering – but this afternoon’s show, as well as forging new connections between three music-rich cultures and communities, also resembled an extension of last year’s Gathering, which was titled Generations, and spotlighted younger emerging local talent. For there was plenty more of that onstage today, in the shape of half a dozen or so Kirkwall Grammar School Fiddlers and the 35-strong P7 Papdale Folk Festival Choir – proudly directed by expat Shetland singer, fiddler and music teacher Jenny Keldie, her birthplace’s main representative in the Between Islands line-up. Proudest of all, she’s also mum to choir member Jamsie Keldie, who additionally contributed a beautiful closing cornet solo to one of her powerful original songs, penned for a relative with Alzheimer’s, thus earning his very own, very proudly worn festival pass and lanyard.

This was just one of several serious lump-in-throat moments during the show – with fellow mums Fowlis and MacInnes clearly a tad choked, too, following the choir’s sweetly harmonious backing on a seafaring Gaelic song.

There was another barely-a-dry-eye peak of emotion during Cara Dillon’s earlier set at the Lunchtime Club, when she sang – by special request of a festival committee member – her celebrated version of Tommy Sands’s Troubles-era ballad ‘There Were Roses, having ruefully noted its freshly renewed significance following Lyra McKee’s murder. Dillon also upheld the coming-generations theme, ceding the stage at one point to her own three children, who performed the traditional ‘Uncle Rat’ on vocals, fiddle and whistle, with multi-instrumental dad Sam Lakeman and fiddler/flautist Toby Shaer.

Back at the Town Hall, we learned from Fowlis that we were lucky MacInnes had made it to Orkney at all, after she was nearly waylaid at Glasgow Airport by staff from a duty-free make-up counter: such was her winningly wide-eyed delight at shopping there (she may live in Glasgow, but is still very definitely an island girl at heart), not to mention her expenditure, that they actually offered her a job on the spot. 

Making her maiden voyage to Orkney, she was heartily glad to have turned them down, exclaiming as she came onstage that (relative to her own South Uist), “The grass is greener on the other side – they lied to me!” Having taught her Northern Isles colleagues – young and old – to sing in Gaelic, she in turn submitted meekly to Keldie’s instruction in the correct pronunciation of Lerwick, referenced in a song MacInnes sang about the herring girls who once plied their trade around all of the participants’ home ports.
As well as yesterday’s marathon concert programme, there was also a lavish array of stonking sessions, not least the 8pm slots ably hosted by Aberdonian instrumental trio Ruach, joined by friends including Shetland banjo legend Gary Peterson, in the Royal, and by local-boys-making-good Gnoss at the Stromness Hotel. The latter merry ruckus, in the main bar, kept on swinging long after Gnoss themselves bowed out around 10pm, while the Still Room spawned the positively monstrous, double-devil’s-instrument-cubed line-up of three piano accordions and three tenor banjos, and nothing else – wielded by players including Karen Tweed, Lau’s Martin Green, Orkney’s Billy Peace, Four Men and a Dog’s Gerry O’Connor, and Peterson’s co-instrumentalist son Lewie. 

Much, much, much later on, the tunes concluded back in the main bar with another session surely destined for the annals, featuring Éamonn Coyne on veritably savage form as ringleader, duelling with Martin Green, while fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and guitarist Kris Drever completed Lau’s presence, alongside four-fifths of Kinnaris Quintet, the aforementioned Billy Peace, fellow accordionist Dermot Byrne, Còig pianist Jason Roach and both Lewie Peterson and his brother/fellow Reveller Erik, deploying a fiddle case as a cajon.
Over the course of a heroically long evening, all three Peterson menfolk were reportedly photographed asleep at different junctures, with Erik ultimately succumbing amidst the above final shenanigans, resulting in multiple inkings over his face and body with the Kinnaris Quintet logo-stamp, before he regained consciousness once more, but had lost his room key and couldn’t raise his roommate, and was thus sent to sleep in semi-secret overspill room reserved for just such eventualities. The preceding discussion saw Erik attempt to offer some sort of credentials, as proof he wasn’t just some random off the street – only for the night manager to cut kindly but firmly across him, saying, “Don’t worry – I know exactly who you are.”

The Kinnaris gals, meanwhile – having not only emblazoned their victim but played themselves to a standstill – eventually left the building less than seven hours before they were due back at the scene of the crim, as hosts of today’s lunchtime session.