At 4.40pm on an overcast Friday afternoon, as another pulse of heavy rain makes its way along the Moray Firth, a man walks round a soggy campsite with a pen and piece of paper. He stops whoever he meets, looks into caravans and motor homes, and asks if anyone is interested in singing or playing that night. Malcolm Leiper is compiling the set list for the Friday evening concert at the Lossiemouth Folk Festival.
Incredibly, this is a weekend festival with no invited guest artists, where three entire concert schedules depend solely on whoever puts their name forward for a 15-minute slot. Apart from some folk club regulars, no-one knows in advance who will turn up, what shape the concert will take, or what any performer will do. The Lossie Folk Festival has been run on this basis for as long as anyone can remember.
Initially spread across several venues, for many years the event has had its home at the Beach Bar, located down a side street and half a mile from the town centre. Huddled between the building and the sea is the tightly packed campsite, with motor homes, vans and caravanettes circled like a wagon train against the elements. A few tents take refuge in the middle.
The festival, now in its 33rd year, has no organising committee and is completely free – campsite included - to everyone who attends. Moreover, it is entirely self-supporting. Whatever money is needed comes from nightly raffles during the concerts, donations boxes at the venue, and any surplus from guests’ gigs over the preceding year. The reasons for this are partly historical. Malcolm says: “The folk club itself was always free and the idea was that people could just come along and perform. They would then go away and tell others about it.” However, there is also a concern that external finance might somehow destroy the essence and atmosphere of the festival and encourage interference. In addition, there would also have to be a committee! They do not want to become a big event, although Malcolm remembers the festival at its height: “Things have changed - in its heyday, there would be half a dozen sessions going on around the place, all weekend.”
Malcolm describes the festival as being run with “a light touch”, relying on volunteers. “You ask for help (for example to set up tables and chairs, steward the doors etc.) and you see who you’ve got - no-one really organises it.” It is very much rooted in the character and informal camaraderie of the Lossiemouth Folk Club - it is a source of pride that the club meets without fail every Tuesday.
Publicity is similarly low-key, largely relying on posters being put up in various spots – as far away as Edinburgh! Word of mouth is also important. “It gradually began to attract people coming in from round about - people would come from all over Scotland, and England, and even Europe. Some people came as children and then came back later as adults.”
By 7pm on the Friday evening, there is already a session in the lounge bar. In the function room next door, a few people mingle, and club regulars cluster around the MC desk, assessing the set list. Pete Miners, a young Lossie singer songwriter goes round dutifully with raffle tickets, later taking photographs for the club’s facebook page. Then, at 7.30pm, without any fuss, Alan Wynn steps into the spotlight, sits down, and begins to play. Alan then becomes MC for the evening, ably assisted by his wife Gill, who undertakes the crucial role of the ‘runner’ – hunting for the acts that have not shown up for their turn! Then the sequence begins, as singer after singer takes to the stage. The songs tumble out – Caledonia, The Twa’ Corbies (a cappella) and Song Of The Plough. Mick Sammons (a longstanding volunteer) and Malcolm duet on mandolin and guitar. People are still asking to go onto the set list. The crowd grows; the heat rises. Among the preponderance of men with guitars, Molly from Lossiemouth stands out with her magnificent voice and self-penned compositions. There is a sea shanty and a Wurzels’ song, Geronimo’s Cadillac and a singalong Rambling Boy.
As each act comes up, John Weatherby, one of the sound engineers, approaches to adjust microphones, plug-in instruments and generally help settle the performer. Kris Koren, his counterpart, sits ready at the mixing desk. Their firm, Sound Sense, is a long-standing fixture at Lossiemouth. Although they frequently operate at major music events, this can be one of their most demanding jobs because, with no sound checks and no rehearsals, they have to constantly vary the sound levels and work to make each act presentable. They succeed admirably.
Having such a professional sound system is a big boost for the festival, and a major attraction in encouraging people to come and perform at Lossie. Not only do performers not need their own equipment, but they are able to utilise high-quality hardware and the contribution of two experts. For some artists this is a first-time experience, but very few are intimidated; some are clearly proficient and at ease with relating to an audience.
Saturday lunchtime sees two sessions begin. The one in the lounge bar is squeezed out by multiple screens showing sports, and the five guitars, three banjos, two mandolins and a fiddle in the function room are gradually swelled by incomers. The session is relaxed with beginner musicians welcomed to play alongside those steeped in experience. As Malcolm states: “I think that’s a message of the club and the festival – we welcome all levels of ability, and also live music of any kind.”
Late in the afternoon, a dapper Irish gentleman discreetly makes his way among the mingling session crowds with pen and paper. Gerry O’Brien, the MC for the coming evening is, like Malcolm the day before, seeking to fill an entire schedule of 15-minute slots from scratch. He will repeat the process on the following day – for the Sunday evening concert.
There is no bar in the function hall itself, but at the far end are the pub kitchens. Throughout the concerts there is a regular procession of food being carried one way and drinks being brought the other through double doors adjacent to the stage. Club volunteers try to stem the tide, but their brave attempts eventually prove futile. In warm velvet tones, politely Gerry requests that people try to avoid coming and going while acts are performing.
The Saturday night concert includes a young band, Aff Oor Heids, who bring the house down with fiddle, bagpipes and guitars, getting the biggest cheer of the night with a foot-stomping strathspey and reel set. The night ends well after 1am with the hardy souls still present and standing in the crowd calling for more!
Understandably, when the Sunday session gets underway after noon, the mood is more subdued! By 3pm the mellow feeling has been maintained. Outside, heavy grey clouds scowl over the Firth and the rain returns. The ranks of the campsite have been thinned as travellers venture homewards. Gerry trawls the area again with pen and paper. However, where Saturday night was furious and frantic, now there are fewer people and more younger musicians coming forward. The idea of involving a new generation is important to the festival and folk club. They actively try to bridge any gap between the veterans of the scene and teenagers and twenty-somethings who may have a different relationship to the music.
Sometimes veering into blues, pop, country, or even jazz, the spine of the festival remains firmly acoustic folk. This flexibility brings two benefits – firstly, it attracts performers and audiences who might not attend more purely traditional events and, secondly, it provides variety and allows songs to be re-interpreted in a folk way. Thus, material by Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, The Clash and even Pink Floyd (!) find their way into the mix and, given a folk treatment, do not seem out of place.
Madcap and magnificent, sometimes seeming as fragile as the spindly walkway that crosses the Lossie river, yet solid for over three decades, the festival has been a success once more. A few people have had to work incredibly hard to keep the show going, but for three consecutive nights, there have been concerts lasting for five hours and more, all based on volunteers putting their names on set lists. Amid the pressures to survive and the temptations to expand, the Lossie Folk Festival retains the simplicity and integrity of the folk spirit and deserves its place as a “jewel of the Moray Firth”.