A Folkie’s Edinburgh Festival

Guest blog by Roddy Macdonald
Top tips for Folkies: Avoid anyone with the surname Greig if you have a wee drinkie inside you. Somewhat bizarrely, relaxing after a curry in an off-piste bar in Glasgow at Celtic Connections this year, I found myself being persuaded to volunteer for the committee of Bothan Dùn Èideann by John Greig, despite just having started my second term of Gaelic classes. Last week, a Facebook message from his son Robbie reminded me that I’d said I’d write a piece on the Festival; A chip off the old block, indeed.

Guest blog by Roddy Macdonald

Top tips for Folkies: Avoid anyone with the surname Greig if you have a wee drinkie inside you. Somewhat bizarrely, relaxing after a curry in an off-piste bar in Glasgow at Celtic Connections this year, I found myself being persuaded to volunteer for the committee of Bothan Dùn Èideann by John Greig, despite just having started my second term of Gaelic classes. Last week, a Facebook message from his son Robbie reminded me that I’d said I’d write a piece on the Festival; A chip off the old block, indeed.

I missed the start, being up at Sàbhal Mòr Ostaig. However, Margaret Stewart’s excellent Gaelic Songs of Drinking and Revelry course was excellent preparation for a festival filled with same which I was determined to indulge to the full before rejoining the working classes proper in September.

Where to start? I pulled my perambulations of the purveyors of fine music from Google Locator to remind me. We only lost the Canons’ Gait on the High Street to the Comedians this year. In recompense, there was a fine selection of trad music gigs to be had at the hub of big-name comedy: The Assembly Rooms.

John Barrow’s Acoustic Music Centre at St Bride’s in Dalry provided a full programme throughout, of which I allowed myself 3 gigs: The Boy and the Bunnet at which I was pleased to see more unaccompanied adults taking advantage of the best bargain of the fest – an exquisite James Ross composition played by 7 of our finest traditional musicians for only £9. Dick Gaughan amply demonstrated why he is The Master to a packed house and Ross Couper & Tom Oakes were joined by James Lindsay (double bass) who certainly earned his fee to the extent that I find myself hoping a trio may be a more regular occurrence. They were also joined by Calum Wood and Roberta Pia of The Banana Sessions which had led me to expect a night of musical madness. However, it proved to be a mix of the eminently chilled but with plenty of musical pyrotechnics which suited my mood perfectly. Tom’s soaring flute rendition of the slow air Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park in the excellent acoustics of the Big Hall was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

Google Location History EdFest RMOne walk back to town from Dalry provided one of the laughs of the festival for me. Walking up Morrison St I turned to my companion who shall remain nameless and said “Feck me. I know it’s the festival but now I know I’ve seen it all” as we walked past an old boy with a snow-white goat, horns and all, on a lead. My mate was strangely silent and looked rather pale. A few paces later I ask “Are you okay? Did you not see the old boy with the goat?” “Oh thank feck you saw it too. I was really worried! ” says he. Apparently it was appearing in a show at the Kings and had to be walked to and from Gorgie City Farm as the Traffic Wardens wouldn’t allow a trailer to park in Home St.

Once again, stalwart Paddy Bort put on a self-immolatory 35 consecutive nights of Festival Folk at the Oak which is still running as this goes to press (or pixel). The welcome addition of (would you believe!) air conditioning in the Royal Oak makes those basement gigs a far less tropical and physically daunting experience for performers and audience alike. Wendy Wetherby’s chamber orchestra complete with Scotland’s oldest silent film and a “Film Explainer” was one of the more unusual experiences of the Festival and it was also great to hear Freeland Barbour and Kevin McLeod again after what seems like aeons. Sinsheen also gave us a magical night last Saturday with support from the mesmerising Tom Clelland. Looking back at the programme has me lamenting what I didn’t go to hear, but I still have sufficient bawbees left to look forward to The Chilli Dogs on Thursday, ultimate showman Alastair McDonald on Friday and the sonorous Mick West with Frank McLaughlin on Sunday 1 Sep.

One of the joys of the Festival is occasionally getting to hear our pub singers in a concert environment and not having to strain to hear them over the rabble. Worthy of note was Bobby Nicholson’s self-penned Battle for the Sun which had me physically tingling from head to foot. Aside from the masterful lyrics, it was the first time I’d really ‘heard’ his guitar, if you know what I mean. I’m sure I was hearing him get sounds from his battered old Yamaha which couldn’t possibly come from a guitar; He can fairly make it ring and sing.

Obscenely talented youngsters Jack Badcock and Ciaràn Ryan managed to land probably the most lucrative gig of the festival: 6 till 8 on the patio of the Inn on the Mile (the erstwhile Bank Hotel) every night of the festival. Often joined by friends such as American piper Ben Miller, it provided a nice al fresco experience accompanied by a meal or just a bowl of chips and a half of Innes & Gunn.

Sessions, sessions, sessions! The best craic of the festival is often to be found at the sessions and 2013 has been no different. My biggest regret was missing the legendary impromptu Monday afternoon Sandy Bell’s session of Kevin McLeod, John Martin, Alec Finn, Mike Katz, George Duff and Freddie Thomson (there may have been others but that’s what reached me on the grapevine). I often found myself chased from session to session by hordes of voluble “Luvvies” all desperate to name-drop and discuss in detail what they had just seen. Generally, I found that The Captains was the Refugee Centre for Sandy Bell’s and, somewhat counter-intuitively, often the Royal Oak proved to be the Refugee Centre when both were invaded by the “Luvvies”. On one night, I even ended up taking refuge in The Doctors, made all the more acceptable by finding Sandy Brechin and his box in there. A very pleasant respite was provided by a trip way off my usual beaten track to The Oxford Bar in the New Town to hear Adam Jack, the two Ronnies (Lang and (North Sea Gas) MacDonald), Ian McNair and the wonderful voice of Chris Miles.

For a virtuoso tune session it would be hard to beat the Tuesday night I heard the session led by Angus Grant in the Reverie with first-class musicians too numerous to mention, but Neil Johnstone’s cello was a welcome addition all the way from Lewis, as was up-and-coming banjo and fiddle wizard Ciaràn Ryan. It was also the first time I’d really heard my taskmaster, young fiddler Robbie Greig, who is certainly a name to watch out for.

The Royal Oak and The Captains Bar were my main howffs, though I did venture across the wall of comedy surrounding the University area to Sandy Bell’s on a few occasions. Recently returned from Japan, the very talented Billy Ross hosted a great session, happily accompanied by Alan & Claire Hunter. Laconic Bluesman Ewen Forfar and veteran singer / guitarist Neil Thomson provided some of the best chillout sessions and Martin Boland worked himself to exhaustion at both The Captains and The Oak. It was good also to hear Mini-Martin, young Ciaran McGhee, start to find his own voice after some cajoling from his seniors.

Thanks to some free tickets from the boss at The Red Fort curry house, I found myself taking Martin’s Saturday night singing partner: Young American chanteuse Elizabeth Merritt (who has taken to calling me Dad – hence my musical daughter), to my oddest gig of the festival – The Ladyboys of Bangkok! Why does it appear in this article? Well, their Saltire-festooned, Brigadoon-on-Acid Scottish Finale is something to behold!

I could go on for hours: Impromptu house guest who had me in fits of laughter, Multi-instrumentalist and National Theatre of Scotland Actor Aly MacRae and piper Hazen Metro soon filled the Captains with an impromptu afternoon session and I found myself eschewing a pre-work night off to drink orange squash because Calum Wood, Ben Miller and Hazen Metro were back in town.

The biggest highlights for me were provided by 2 folk at either end of the age spectrum. Having read of my Refugee wanderings on Facebook one Sunday, Folk Revival Original Dolina MacLennan jumped into a taxi and came to The Captains “to cheer me up”! She certainly did that. We had more than a few belly laughs and I loved hearing her give us a few lovely Gaelic songs in Sam & Becca’s excellent Sunday session.

However, it was young Adam Holmes who provided the absolute highlight of the festival for me. His achingly beautiful new arrangement of Ae Fond Kiss had me reduced to tears and in bits. The laddie is nothing short of a genius and knows exactly how long to suspend a note for maximum effect. Sadly it’s not on his first solo album, to be released later this week, but if you get the chance to hear it, loup tall buildings to do so. The first opportunity will be when he supports Jack Badcock, Jani Lang and Tomàs Ò Briain at the Jazz Bar on Sunday 8th September – only £4.

I’ve just sent a “Get thee behind me, Satan!” text to Ronnie Lang who’s trying to tempt me to Sandy Bell’s tonight to hear a Duchess of Dreich sing with Adam Jack and Ewen Forfar’s session. I’ll bet it’s Chris Miles. Tommy McCarthy told me he was coming up around now as well. But I’m working tomorrow and my liver is begging for mercy. I could take the car again and just drink squash. Stuff it, I’ll go and make some dinner and wrestle with my conscience…