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37th ORKNEY FOLK FESTIVAL - 23-26 May 2019

Throughout this year's Orkney Folk Festival, the venues in Stromness and Kirkwall and outlying areas throughout the four days saw heart-warming and exciting performances from visiting artists and local singers and musicians alike. The opening concert at Stromness Town Hall (sold out - as most events were) gave an exhilarating indication of what to expect through the three following days. Piping from Stromness's RBL Pipe Band was followed by more local music from the fiddles of the West Mainland Strathspey and Reel Society. Of the visiting acts, the local audience assuredly enjoyed the stunning combination of fiddle maestro Ryan Young and in-demand guitarist Jenn Butterworth, also at the festival with the Kinnaris Quintet. Cara Dillon ‘topped’ the bill with an immaculate demonstration of the purity of her voice, but it was the return of The Poozies with their new line-up which was, perhaps, the highlight of the night, with Sarah McFadyen from Hoy on fiddle and banjo providing two songs in Orcadian dialect alongside other songs from the group in Gaelic and English, and the magnificent sound of three fiddles, banjo and guitar with Mary McMaster's harp.

As I was staying in Kirkwall, I forewent the nightly festival clubs, but returned to Stromness for afternoon and evening concerts on the Friday. The afternoon show gave me the chance to hear acts I had not seen before. Remembering Gnoss as an Orcadian duo at the festival a few years back, it was interesting to see how they had developed into a foursome in Glasgow, with an impressive debut album to launch. The six women in Glasgow-based band, Heisk, impressed; the combination of electro harp, fiddles, keyboards and drums delivering a distinctly funky sound, a contrast to the songs and tunes from Gnoss. The third band, Coig, a foursome from Cape Breton, was the revelation of the festival for me. Featuring two fiddles, piano, mandolin and banjo, all four members had been solo performers before forming to promote the Celtic Colours festival several years ago and have produced several albums. Their set of furious Cape Breton tunes interspersed with a Gaelic song, a lesser known composition by Gordon Lightfoot and step-dancing brought the audience to their feet at the end of the afternoon.

On the Friday evening I caught up with the trio of Dermot Byrne, Eamonn Coyne and John Doyle whose Irish music provided a contrast to my first taste of Lau during the weekend. I was to catch Lau again the following night in the spectacular setting of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Like last year's concert by Duncan Chisholm in the same venue, it was a wonderful aural experience and the intricate music coming from their fiddle, accordion, guitar, vocals and various machines proved equally suited to the atmospheric space.

Despite the dismal weather outside, Saturday and Sunday afternoons brought what I had most anticipated at this year's festival. The launch of a major Between Islands project initiated by Stornoway's An Lanntair was celebrated by two concerts featuring Julie Fowlis and Kathleen MacInnes from the Western Isles, Orkney's own Saltfishforty and singer/fiddler Jenny Keldie, originally from Shetland and now resident in Orkney. The second of these two concerts would form the latest in the series of Gatherings which have proved high points of recent festivals.

The idea behind the project was to explore cultural connections between the Northern Islands of Shetland and Orkney and the Western Isles of the Uists, Harris and Lewis and Barra through a series of inter-island initiatives, in this case through their distinctive traditions in music. The Saturday afternoon concert comprised solo and combination performances from all four acts. Julie presented songs from the Monach Islands (with which she has ancestral connections) and St. Kilda, and both she and Kathleen sang Gaelic songs from the Uists. Of Jenny's original songs, one about dementia stood out, linking effectively with a snatch of the Gaelic song Calum Sgaire from Julie and Kathleen. They and the irrepressible Saltfishforty were augmented by Shetland song group, Laeverick, several Orcadian players, and local primary and senior school children backing on strings and as a choir.

The Saturday concert had a stunning range of songs and tunes old and new from all the islands, but Sunday's Gathering was even more breathtaking. A full ensemble of Orcadian musicians gathered to back the previous day's performers, and the second half of the show was splendidly produced by Douglas Montgomery. It went into overdrive when invitations to join were extended to the Poozies, Lau and, widening the island connection, Coig from Cape Breton Island. One lasting memory I will have of these concerts is that of the inimitable Billy Jolly leading the ensemble with Lonely Scapa Flow.

These concerts in Stromness Town Hall and Kirkwall Cathedral stood out for me this year. Many of the artists were braving the weather by visiting other islands and locations during the weekend - the Poozies headlining a ceilidh on Sanday, for instance. The final concerts are always very popular and this year an extra one was added at Stromness Community Centre. Unfortunately I was unable to enjoy the final concert at Stromness Academy, but those acts I had missed in concert I was able to catch in their lunchtime sessions - Malinky, Four Men And A Dog and the Kinnaris Quintet. Hopefully the weather will return to its normal festival sunny self next year. Whatever, I do advise first time visitors to book accommodation well in advance and recommend, as I did this year, flying to Kirkwall a couple of days in advance and lingering afterwards to explore the islands in all their beauty, having enjoyed the music - whatever the weather.

Neil Hedgeland