mon 04/07/2022

Edinburgh International Festival 2021: traditional music round-up review | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh International Festival 2021: traditional music round-up review

Edinburgh International Festival 2021: traditional music round-up review

An outdoor feast as some of the finest traditional musicians perform in Old College Quad

Contemporary folk band Braebach perform in Old College QuadRyan Buchanan

Following on from last year’s online-only My Light Shines On programme, traditional music features heavily in the 2021 Edinburgh International Festival, with a series of live performances taking place outdoors, in the quad of Edinburgh University's Old College (pictured below).

Exploring Gaelic folk traditions, fiddler and composer Aiden O’Rourke curated three performances under the title "A Great Disordered Heart". The finale of this trilogy, Shared Futures was due to be opened by Irish singer Lisa O’Neil, though sadly quarantine-related complications left her unable to perform. In her place was Irish experimental folk artist Áine O’Dwyer, who opened the concert by, so she told us, telling three stories. A solo conceptual show by this artist could perhaps be interesting, but her introspective ramblings mumbled over ambient, synthesised whole-tone based chords were weird at best, boring at worst, and not a good fit for either the performance of the venue. 

EIF's purpose built venue in the Quad at Old College, Edinburgh

Next on the bill was folk-trio Lau (pictured below), which comprises O’Rourke with keyboard player Martin Green and guitarist and vocalist Kris Drever. Though it was an artistically excellent performance, again, it didn’t come across tremendously well in that venue. An intimate gig in, say, a small room in the back of a pub, or a cosy theatre space would have been something very special, but unless you were sitting right up front, much of what was being communicated got lost. Which is a great shame, because these are three very fine musicians. O’Rourke’s intricate fiddle playing and Green’s shimmering accordion were beautiful, just hard to grasp on to from a few rows back.

Lau perform at the Edinburgh International Festival

An instrument which does work well outdoors is the Highland Bagpipes, which opened contemporary folk band Braebach’s set on Monday night. The rest of the Scottish five-piece were suitably amped up too, making the outdoor space a perfect venue for their vibrant, upbeat performance. Nightcrawler – a set of tunes written about James Lindsay, who apparently sleepwalks – was light and agile, and a set of tunes composed after travels in New Zealand collaborating with indigenous musicians had punch and panache. A piece by the late fiddler John Morris Rankin, which was found by accident, stored in the recording function of his keyboard after his death, was more restful. Given the title The Last March, it was a lovely tribute to its composer. 

Inspired by the Quebecois step dancing traditions, Les Pieds Joyeux (Happy Feet) saw an impressive step-dancing solo (pictured below) from singer and fiddler Megan Henderson. Sadly that was the only dancing allowed, though the band did encourage the audience to clap along and dance in their seats if they wished. The band definitely brought a ceilidh vibe to the final tune, "Knees Up", performing with a strong, driven rhythm and tight synchronicity. 

Megan Henderson step dances

Fara, a trio of Orcadian fiddlers plus a keyboard player from the west of Scotland, performed a rousing set on Wednesday night. The collaborative approach they take to writing music is evident by both the ease with which they play as a band, and their funny interjections about one another between sets. A tune written by fiddler Jeana Leslie as a birthday present for her mum featured beautiful, slow, interweaving melodious, which then moved into the more upbeat Seven Eight NEIN!, named after fellow fiddle Catriona Price’s German mother’s outbursts when they played together as children. A lot of their own compositions are songs set to the words of Orcadian poets. A setting of Christina M Costie’s Spear thoo the Wast Wind (Ask the west wind) saw some lovely harmonies sung by all three fiddlers, as did Love gathers all, titled after the refrain in Edwin Muir’s poem "Song", which featured soft chords from the keys and a gently rocking pizzicato motif from the fiddles. 

Wind dancer, a tune from their upcoming album which premiered on Wednesday, was written by Jeana Leslie, and was performed with impeccably agile fiddle playing, and ended with an intricate, drone-like chord. Keyboard players Rory Matheson – who’s relatively new to the band – performed his own solo arrangement of a Gaelic song from his home town of Assynt. A peaceful arrangement, it was lovely to look up through the venue structure’s clear roof and watch birds fly through the dusky sky, pretending for a second you weren’t in the middle of a city, but somewhere far more still. 

Ending with an energetic set of tunes written by Kristin Harvey and Jeana Leslie, Fara’s potent playing and strong syncopation really drew the audience in, bringing their performance to a joyous close.


I completely agree with the review - Aine O’Dyer’s slot was pretentious, immature and inarticulate. A sad waste of time and money, only partly redeemed by the remainder of the show.

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