Raising the Roof at The Orkney Folk Festival, Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall, May 25, 2024

Written by on June 3, 2024


Nora Brown & Stephanie Coleman


The Orkney Folk Festival this year gave more focus to the capital by programming two “mega-shows” at the Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall on the Friday and Saturday.

The formula was simple: 5 top acts doing 6 numbers each, as a kind of giant “taster” event – and both nights vindicated that decision by being great concerts, jampacked with an enthusiastic public who were really enjoying themselves. Anna Massie – who had performed on the previous night’s bill with RANT – was the compere for the evening and did so with an infectious energy and wit. Nora Brown is a teenage banjo prodigy who has been recording her laid-back Appalachian stylings for 5 years. Stephanie Coleman is a master old-time fiddler with a 20-year start on her musical partner. Together, they purvey a haunting mix of tunes and close-harmony vocals that sound like a mixture of Doc Watson, the moodier side of Gillian Welch, and the tight-mouthed singing of veteran banjo-player and singer Virgil Anderson. On the night, they opened with Anderson’s Wild Bill Jones and returned to him later in the set with an evocative rendering of You’ve Been Gone So Long. While tapping my foot to their take on Norman Blake’s murder ballad Billy Gray, it suddenly dawned on me that the melody was uncannily similar to Fields of Athenry – I wonder if Norman has ever been to Parkhead! The norm at festivals seems to be that acts open with barn-stormers, but I rather liked this duo’s approach of gently drawing us into the music via gradually increasing emotional intensity rather than pounding volume and rhythm. For me, and, to judge by their warm response, for many in the audience, that approach worked well. Very enjoyable. Saltfishforty had been the home-boy act the night before, and the punningly-named JenEric filled that slot tonight, lifting the pace and volume just a shade. Pianist Jennifer Austin was a founding member of Fara, is a much-in-demand session player for many music projects, and has a growing reputation as a composer. Her musical partner, fiddler and vocalist Eric Linklater, is also a composer and we were to hear a couple of fine examples of his work towards the end of their set. To start with though, we were treated to a set of two old Orkney tunes – Hymn for St Magnus and Far o’er the blue waters – followed by reels from the repertoire of Irish fiddler Sean McGuire. A highlight for me was Eric’s sensitive take on a song by Davy Steele (one of the finest trad singers ever). Heave Ya Ho was not only a delight to listen to but also had the audience quietly singing along with its melodic chorus. The tempo then picked up with Eric’s tunes Miss Life (dedicated to his friend the intriguingly named Ingrid Giggle), and their finale The Swim. Musically, Jen and Eric perfectly complemented each other and were a pleasure to listen to. Taking us up to the interval was RURA . This was a different kind of musical creature indeed. The straight-ahead barnstorming I’d expected earlier suddenly materialised with A Minor Emergency causing plentiful foot-stomping and clapping from the audience. Jack Smedley, David Foley, Steven Blake and Adam Brown tend very strongly to the fiery driving side of music, and the crowd were right up for it. The set had its lighter, more sensitive moments too however – The Soft Mist Over All, from their 2023 release Dusk Moon, painted musical images of Highland glens and open spaces. Their finale number – Catriona’s – started off with a similar atmospheric feel to it, but then powered to an impressive crescendo before dropping back towards the finish as it almost faded out. After a brief, almost reverent silence, the audience cheered them to the rafters.

Brennen Leigh

McGoldrick, McCusker & Drever

Next up was one to look out for: Austin, Texas songwriter Brennen Leigh – I haven’t heard such smart pithy lyrics in years, great stage presence, plus she has a marvellous voice and impressive guitar-picking skills – I was far from the only person there commenting on her real star quality. The nearest comparison I can make is with Gillian Welch but with a greater vocal range, and her excellent picking skills obviate any need for a David Rawlings-type sideman. While her recorded sound tends more to Nashville norms, accompanying herself with only her guitar gave her live performance a much more rootsy alt-country feel – which fitted in splendidly with the evening’s folky ambience. Brennen Leigh will be touring the UK, if she’s in your area make sure you don’t miss her!

The night was topped off by the magical music of Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker, and Kris Drever. I’m a long-term admirer of McGoldrick’s talents, and he certainly showed them to advantage here beginning with the uillean pipes, on a beautiful instrumental arrangement of the Gaelic lament Crucán Na bPáiste, that seguéd into a set of jigs, before moving on a selection of flutes and whistles. John McCusker’s playing showed him to be just the chap you’d want for a fiddle duel with the Devil. It was his first time in Orkney – he said Kris Drever had been nagging him to come for years – and he appeared to be really enjoying himself, playing with a relentless energy and commitment right from the start. Mr Drever himself revealed guitar-playing abilities not always so evident on his recorded work and provided a powerhouse backing that really lifted the other two musicians. His vocal skills were also called into play with the penultimate number of the set The Poorest Company – a composition by himself, McCusker, and Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble from their 2008 collaboration Before the Ruin. The evening finished on a high energy note with a set comprising slipjig Farewell to Whalley Range and Johnny MacDonald’s Reel – which, as well as getting an ovation from the footstamping clapping crowd, was going down very well with the dancers in the side aisle!






https://www.facebook.com/EchoMusicOrkney (Eric Linklater)




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