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35th ORKNEY FOLK FESTIVAL - 25-28 May 2017

This year's Orcadian musical extravaganza followed the same successful pattern of previous years, with almost every venue selling out before the start of the festival, and the sun coming out on the first day and remaining as bright as the music for most of the weekend. The major concerts were held in Stromness, with one concert in Kirkwall, the other major centre on the Mainland island of the Orkney Isles, and ceilidh evenings involving a mix of visiting artistes and local musicians at various outlying areas of Mainland and the southern islands connected by causeways in Burray and South Ronaldsay. There were also overnight visits to the Southern end of Hoy and the far-out island of Sanday, as well as special afternoon concerts in Kirkwall Cathedral, Birsay, Skaill House and St. Ninan's Kirk.

Performances in the festival’s heart of Stromness took place in the old church-like Town Hall with late night concerts at Stromness Academy, and a Festival Club, a Song Club and sessions taking place in the Stromness and Royal Hotels for the most part. There were also workshops available and a popular Open Stage. The Opening and Farewell Concerts, added to the concerts in Stromness on the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, enabled people without the transport to take them to the shows scattered round the island to get a good taste of the music offered by the visiting and local musicians over the four days.

The line-up of visiting performers, headed by Eddi Reader, was of a very high standard, with the opening concert giving a good idea of what to expect over the next few days. The immaculate, mesmerising fiddle of Martin Hayes with guitar side-kick Dennis Cahill, and the latest incarnation of Blazin’ Fiddles featuring home-coming Orcadian Kristan Harvey, stirred up the audience, with first-time visitors from Prince Edward Island in Canada, the East Pointers, making an impression with their fiddle/banjo/guitar based sound. That first evening was complemented for visiting festival-goers by sets from the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society and Stromness RBL Pipe Band.

At any festival worth its salt, it is impossible to see everybody performing within the time of the festival, so I missed Eddi Reader’s concert in Kirkwall, and instead partook of a second helping of Hayes and Cahill’s sublime lengthy sets of tunes in Stromness, alongside a very welcome reappearance by Flook. After many years away, it was a joy to hear the flutes of Brian Finnegan and Sarah Allen combining with Ed Boyd’s guitar and John Joe Kelly’s bodhrán. I did catch the inimitable Eddi during the Sunday Supplement at Stromness Town Hall and was impressed by her rendition of a tune by Phil Cunningham with words written recently by Eddi’s husband, John Douglas. Of other visiting performers, I saw and heard the Young ‘Uns from Teesside stun a Song Club audience - I'm sure they would have gone down well on Sanday! I also enjoyed Iona Fyfe’s singing (with and without band) at the Song Club, which was ably compered by traditional singer, Scott Gardiner.

The festival’s visiting performers provided aural treats for the home audience, but for visitors like myself, it was an opportunity to catch up with the thriving Orcadian music scene - most notably showcased in the series of Gatherings which have proved such a high point in recent years. This year, the task of curator was given to Kris Drever, recent recipient of two awards for Best Singer and Best Original Song at the Radio 2 Folk Awards and coming home to Orkney, although now resident on Shetland. Kris decided to make this year’s Gathering with friends and visiting musicians an evening of songs and music from Orkney or written by Orcadians. As well as contributing some of his own songs, he had contacted visiting performers such as the East Pointers and Laura Cortese from America, suggesting Orcadian tunes to learn. Along with members of his own band, Louis Abbot and Euan Burton, other guests included Siobhan Miller, Kristan Harvey, members of Saltfishforty and The Chair, and Jennifer & Hazel Wrigley. Also standing out were Eddi Reader’s joining Kris on one of his own songs, Ghosts, and the very retro sounding Lonely Scapa Flow, composed by Orcadian Allie Windwick.

One other concert of home-based Orcadian music was the launch of Saltfishforty's new album, Bere, featuring songs by Brian Cromarty and music by Brian and fiddler Douglas Montgomery and the stand-out ballad, Tender Is The Night, on which they were joined by Marie Montgomery and Jenny Keldie. Brian and Douglas, of course, also form part of The Chair, who performed at a sold-out late night Stomp concert with visiting newcomers, Elephant Sessions.

The final night’s two Farewell Concerts at the Town Hall and the Academy gave everyone the chance to enjoy again performers they had seen and also have a taste of those musicians they had missed out on. Each concert featured eight acts - the Town Hall’s bill was led by Kris and Eddi, while the Academy concert included Blazin’ Fiddles and Flook as well as the Open Stage winner. I did catch up with Elephant Sessions and Jeffrey Foucault this way, but unfortunately still missed Talisk and Gnoss.

So, another four days filled with glorious music and sunshine in a beautiful island setting had come to an end. As I proceeded from the last concert to a berth for the early Monday morning sailing to the Scottish mainland, I was greeted by the sound of musicians on board for a night’s post-festival session. Once again it had been well worth any hassles making it to the islands by public transport. Finally, some advice to people planning to visit next year - apply for a Patronage early in the New Year to maximise chances of getting tickets, as ticket sales get quicker every year. Also, early booking of accommodation is recommended as hotels and guest houses are getting heavily booked already!

by Neil Hedgeland