Now in its fourth year, this festival of traditional culture living up to its billing of being “rooted in the past, resonating in the present”, has not only established its place in Edinburgh's calendar of festivities, but has expanded even further with more venues and more sell-outs - many evenings giving prospective punters even more choices to make. Once again promoted by TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland) and based primarily at the Scottish Storytelling Centre with performances taking place all over the city, it was as previously scheduled to coincide with Beltane and May Day celebrations, and walks and talks featured strongly in the 12-day programme alongside the music, songs, stories, dance and other traditional arts and crafts.
The first evening's proceedings opened strongly at the SSC with Wayfaring Stranger, a show featuring Fiona Ritchie, author of the book of the same name concerning the migration of music from Scotland and Ulster to the Southern Appalachians. This had previously taken place at Celtic Connections but was now expanded with a different set of musicians - Alan Reid, Jenn Butterworth and Laura-Beth Salter.
The night continued with a Gaelic concert at the Caves underground club with Dàimh alongside Griogair's Ghettocroft and Niteworks. Dàimh began the evening with an exciting display of their blend of fiery pipe/fiddle/guitar-led instrumentals combined with compelling Gaelic vocals from recent recruit, Ellen Macdonald. Ellen, whose family came from North Uist but who is now based in Inverness, proved the star performer of the night. As well as singing beautifully with Dàimh and providing an amusing anecdote about a red telephone box in Cheesebay on North Uist which features on their video, she provided a light touch of Gaelic song in Griogair's set which, not to everyone's taste, was dominated more by rap in English than his renowned piping. Ellen went on to contribute Gaelic vocals to Niteworks' set which proved an exciting end to a night of contrasts. Niteworks, from Skye, has gained a considerable reputation in the Highlands for its fusion of Gaelic language and traditional music and instruments such as pipes and fiddle with electronic sounds.
This interaction of electronic sounds and beats with Gaelic song was also displayed to a smaller but attentive audience at the Storytelling Centre later one evening by Alasdair Whyte and Ross Whyte (no relation), who performed a series of new arrangements of ancient traditional Gaelic songs and an original composition. Alasdair, originally from Mull, is a Mod Gold medallist and a Gaelic singer of some experience. Indeed, he was featured on Niteworks' NW album. Ross, an electronic musician introduced to Alasdair by Glasgow's CCA, contributed the ambient sounds and abstract visuals as well as, according to the excellent notesheet for the one-hour performance, an original composition combining looping piano, electronic beats and a sample of a 1938 recording made in Barra. Their project is ongoing - their next scheduled performance being in October, but alongside Niteworks' set, Alasdair and Ross provided another example of electronic sounds applied to Gaelic music, following Freya Thomson's Community And Star Dust performed at the recent Edinburgh Harp Festival.
When I first glanced at the mouth-watering programme for this year's festivities, one concert that stood out for me as a recent incomer to the former borough of Leith, now a vibrant part of the city of Edinburgh, was the Queens Hall concert entitled The Men From Leith, featuring musicians with Leith connections. The evening began with Blue Rose Code, otherwise known as singer-songwriter Ross Wilson, on this occasion with accompanying musicians. Ross' reputation has grown considerably over three albums, the most recent being And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing. During a necessarily short set, most songs were received with recognition from large sections of the packed hall. As well as In The Morning from the latest album, two songs inspired by his time spent in Leith stood out, expressing contrasting sentiments - regrets of misspent times in Ghosts Of Leith, and a more joyful paean to Leith and Edinburgh, Edina.
Dick Gaughan, who was born in Glasgow but has lived in Leith for some considerable time, came on as the centrepiece of the concert. This living legend has not been well recently and had not performed for some time. However, he was determined to appear at this concert compered by the Artistic Director of Leith Theatre, John Paul McGroaty, and though understandably shaky to start, he soon got into his stride and impressed with stunning renditions of No Gods And Precious Few Heroes and his own Why Old Men Cry before finishing with Hamish Henderson's anthemic Freedom Come All Ye.
Dean Owens brought proceedings to a close with a country-tinged set from his band, The Whisky Hearts, which included folk luminaries, Brian McAlpine on keyboards and Amy Geddes on fiddle. They naturally included in their set the song that Dean wrote about his father and which gave its name to this entertaining musical tribute to Leith, The Man From Leith.
Throughout the 12 days, concerts often happened simultaneously, at the SSC and the Pleasance in particular. Among those I was able to attend at the Centre was Siobhan Miller's immaculate performance, ably backed by Euan Burton and Aaron Jones and supported by a young Gaelic group of great interest, Huradal, featuring Mairi Britton and Sophie Stephenson step-dancing alongside Mod Gold medallist Eilidh Munro on clarsach and vocals and Robbie Greig on fiddle and guitar. Sophie and Eilidh were also involved in a Tradbeats workshop. Also enjoyable were an evening with Gerda Stevenson, accompanied by Seylan Baxter, Rob Macneacail and Kyrre Slind, a survey of Radical Song from 1707 to today with Stuart McHardy, and the James Connolly Story from Edinburgh's Cowgate to the Dublin GPO, featuring Alasdair McDonald and Ray Burnet, and presented by the Edinburgh Folk Club.
Edinburgh Folk Club also curated concerts at the Pleasance, their normal place of residence. I was unable to catch David Nachmanoff, guitarist and singer-songwriter, but by all accounts he went down well, as did the incomparable Martin Simpson whom I was fortunate to be able to see. Soundhouse, who continue to put on house concerts as well as regular shows in the Traverse Theatre Bar, also put on several of the other concerts at the Pleasance. I managed to get to the concerts given by the Alan Kelly Gang and Nuala Kennedy's latest band, both of which provided evenings of high standard music and entertainment, but one indubitable highlight of the whole festival was the last night performance by Talisk. They more than lived up to the reputation garnered by a band who has won last year's BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and who also feature in their line-up the current BBC Scotland's Young Traditional Musician of the Year, concertina player, Mohsen Amini. The trio, who also feature Hayley Keenan on fiddle and Craig Irving on guitar, was showcasing its forthcoming debut album and their sizzling music got everybody on their feet and delivered a stunning end to the festival proper.
The music may have stopped that night, but the hugely successful Folk Film Gathering at Edinburgh's Filmhouse, now in its second year, was expanded by a further three days, enabling me to see Tempus De Baristas, a documentary about Sardinian shepherds, which contrasted neatly with Shepherds Of Berneray, a newly restored documentary from 1981 shown earlier in the festival along with a Q&A which, among others, included the singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, who had lived on the Hebridean island in the 1970s. The other outstanding film evening I attended was a double-bill at the SSC featuring two films produced by Timothy Neat concerning Hamish Henderson - The Summer Walkers (1976), about Scottish travellers, and Journey To A Kingdom (1992), going with Hamish back to the North East. Timothy was in attendance for an illuminating Q&A.
Another very popular aspect of the burgeoning Tradfest spreading its wings across the city was the continuation of the afternoon talks at the National Library of Scotland, once again very well attended. This year the talks topically travelled around Scotland, from Caithness on the Monday to Port Seton and Cockenzie on the Thursday. The final event on the Friday was a talk on the work of Helen Fullerton in Argyll. She collected and made songs working with Argyllshire travellers and dam builders from Donegal. This was led by Geordie McIntyre, Alison McMorland and daughter Kirsty Potts. Another event that Alison and Geordie were involved in was Alison Burns’ talk on her research and project concerning William Macmath, a 19th century collector of songs who came from Dumfries and Galloway and collected Scottish material for famed American collector Francis Child. This talk also featured a song from Robyn Stapleton, who was part of an ensemble of Dumfries based musicians brought together for a performance at the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival. This ensemble also included Aaron Jones, Claire Mann, Emily Smith, Jamie McClennan and Wendy Stewart. They performed again at Tradfest. Another highlight of the talk events was Margaret Bennett's illustrated presentation, The End Of The Shift, about working lives in Fife and Perthshire, as explored in an oral history project.
In a packed, even overflowing, programme which presented multiple choices each evening and many events during the day, it was impossible to experience a bit of everything on offer during the festival at the Storytelling Centre, at the Pleasance, at the Filmhouse and in the town. I would love to have caught the visiting Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Mike Vass's In Search of Neil Gunn and Ewan McLennan, for instance, and glancing again at the programme, there were also plenty of ceilidhs to attend and early morning walks to go on, if so minded. It is the sign of a successful well-established event that full houses were reported in most venues every night. Long may Tradfest mark the beginning of May and the arrival of summer!