The Orkney Folk Festival’s Friday Feast of Music

Written by on May 30, 2024

The Orkney Folk Festival’s Friday Feast of Music – featuring RANT, Genticorum, Hadhirgaan, Saltfishforty, and Máirtín O’Connor, Cathal Hayden, Seamie O’Dowd – took place in the Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall on 24th May, 2024.



RANT                                                                                  Genticorum


The Festival centres on Stromness and its environs, but this year expanded its remit to numerous small village venues and to the Pickaquoy Centre – a large multipurpose venue fortunately gifted with marvellous acoustics and a fine technical team. The “Picky”, as it’s known locally, played host to two mega-concerts on the Friday and Saturday, in which five top acts performed short sets of six numbers apiece – a very successful formula that maintained a very high level of audience interest and engagement. The Friday performance was announced as “A Friday Feast of Music”, and the menu had something for everyone. First up was superstar fiddle foursome RANT – Anna Massie & Lauren MacCool from the Black Isle, Bethany Reid from Shetland, and Gillian Frame from Arran. The informal bar sessions in Stromness had been hi-jacked by hordes of fiddlers from mainland university trad societies all trying to outdo each other in speed and volume, and , when you’ve sat through 40 fiddlers all sawing away like violin versions of Jimmy Page, it’s a real pleasure to hear a fiddle band playing with a real command of melody and dynamics. RANT filled that niche admirably, and their opening set – Göran Bergs / Crow Road Croft – was tightly arranged and masterfully played. While each individual part of the arrangement displayed great professionalism and taste, the highlight for me was Anna Massie’s delicate and precise lead work that danced most melodically around the other parts. Anna revealed herself later in the programme as a raconteuse on a level with Phil Cunningham when she had the audience in hysterics with the humorous spin she put on a true story about how she found an ancient Pictish warrior’s skeleton in a seaside cave. The remaining numbers in their spot showed off each member’s gifts to advantage and concluded with The Big Reel of Ballynacally that excited an enthusiastic response from the audience – some of whom had been dancing in the side aisle. Québecois trio Genticorum took the stage and similarly showed their prodigious instrumental chops while also demonstrating a fine knack for vocal harmony. Pascal Gemme handled fiddle duties and vocals while also taking on the role of percussionist via traditional québecois step-dancing. How he managed all that without collapsing from exhaustion, I do not know but it was impressive. The fingers of Nicholas Williams (accordion, flute, & vocals) danced around the extended melody lines and time signature changes on musical display, and Yann Falquet (guitar & vocals) provided a plethora of rhythmic chops and jazzy inversions and, as his “party piece” showed how a jaw harp should really be played! Highlights for me were Dans les haubans and Voici le temps – both of which I had had the pleasure of hearing back in January at Celtic Connections.


Hadhirgaan                                                                     Saltfishforty


Taking us up to the break was a 30-plus-strong group (a mixture of instruments, including guitar and double bass, but centring on fidddlers) of very talented youngsters – all pupils at Kirkwall Grammar School – whose Musical Director is fiddler Douglas Montgomery – he of Saltfishforty. I’ve heard many a school orchestra, and always had to make mental allowances for faulty intonation and rhythm. No such filters needed to be applied here; every note was perfect both in pitch, timing, and tone, and the overall impression was one of professionalism. Highlights were The Britches Full of Stitches polka and their closing set of tunes Aird Ranters – The Goat – The Flying Tent. Douglas was directing affairs from the side and, if his wide beaming smile was anything to go by, seemed mighty pleased and proud of his protegés. After the break, Douglas Montgomery was back, along with singer and guitarist Brian Cromarty, the two core elements of the marvellous Saltfishforty (in case you’re wondering, it’s a punning take on “Salt fish for tea” – which, apparently, was on the menu when they were thinking up a name for the band). Also on stage were a very tight bass and drums rhythm section and the band were joined later by an ensemble of family members. They jumped straight into a real toe-tapper: the Django Reinhardt-ish Tabasco Twist from their 2010 album Goose Music. Brian’s cheerfully sung paean of praise for the spicy sauce provided a kick-off point for Douglas to take off on a gypsy jazz solo full of wild slides and choppy rhythms. This was followed by a tribute set to local fiddler and composer Hugh Inkster. Brian’s daughter Lucy provided harmonies on a song about a somewhat bizarre Orkney marriage custom called Lasses in Molasses. A high point for me was a song that demanded the participation of the audience in singing along while waving imaginary beer glasses. Isie’s Gaan tae Brew, penned by local legend Allie Windwick, celebrated the eponymous Isie for his home-brew contribution to countless parties. While being on local ground didn’t do Saltfishforty any harm, it was the sheer quality of performance and their skilled communication with and involvement of the audience that justly earned the band a rousing ovation at the conclusion of their set.

Máirtín O’Connor, Cathal Hayden, and Seamie O’Dowd


Rounding off the night with a set that had the accent on melody and counterpoint was a trio made up of veteran Irish accordionist Máirtín O’Connor (Boys of the Lough, De Danaan, Riverdance et al.) , master fiddler Cathal Hayden (Four Men and a Dog), and guitarist Seamie O’Dowd (Christy Moore, Dervish, Tommy Emmanuel et al.). A mainly instrumental voyage through O’Connor’s lengthy catalogue of traditional Irish tunes gave ample opportunity for the others to strut their stuff, and Cathal Hayden in particular generated some sweetly melodic lines that reminded one that music can be an emotion all by itself. Seamie O’Dowd underpinned the tunes with rhythmic and sensitive guitar playing and pushed the rhythmic envelope with the penultimate number, the one song of the set, Joe Dolan’s Foxy Devil. The concert over-ran by almost an hour – always a possibility when multiple artists are on the bill, but this reviewer could honestly have stayed all night.



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