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2005 Festival Reviews - Fèis 2005

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SATURDAY

Poet a-wandering and a-wondering

It's the final night of the best Hebridean Celtic Festival yet and anticipation is running high. Will it be as special, memorable and - let's face it - life-enhancing as the previous nights? Which are the best new rumours circulating? Why is the HCF like Christmas in July? And just why is the HCF so flicking cool?

First things first. I'm learning about this journalist malarkey. You'll remember my Y-shaped Q from the other night and all that shiznick? A humble poet and novelist, I'm happier mingling with the real people, queuing with friends - it's all part of the festival experience, right?

No. Not if you're a journalist. I've adopted a tried and tested journalistic technique. Possessing, as I do, one of those silver open-sesame festival wristbands that gain me access to anywhere in the known universe and also a Media pass (renders journalists susceptible to invisible bribery via free alcohol), it seems I simply don't need to queue like real people do at all. Now I'm an important figure in the world of surreal journalism I can simply swan past the lines of impatient, desperate-to-see-their-idols human beings/midge-food and swagger on through the security checks with a haughtily dismissive question bellowed at blue-tent volume: 'Don't you know who I think I am?'

That's the theory. Truth is, on the last night an optical illusion occurs and it seems there is no queue anyway. Some festival-goers from elsewhere (actually, shouldn't we call them festival-comers?) unfortunately can't stay for the Saturday night due to work, travel arrangements, and so on. Many do, of course, stay, but the crowd seems to pace itself better - result: it seems there is no queue , but once you've been in the tent a little while you realize, hey, wait, actually there are thousands of people here.

Mark Saul, whose band opened tonight's gig and provided an unequivocal highlight of the festival, even said at one point: 'Where have all these people come from?!'

I feel so, so sorry for those festival-comers who missed the Mark Saul band's adrenalised performance. More than one person I spoke to said it had been one of the best gigs they'd ever seen. I wholeheartedly agree, for although Mark Saul was something of an unknown quantity to me, his band in fact turned out to be the revelation of the festival. I mean, their musicianship - pipes , guitar, fiddle and drums (complemented by samples) - was spectacular: fast, emotive and tight. This band deserves to be bigger than Australia.

The Melbourne quartet wowed an ever-increasing audience with their massive, melodic songs, their humble good nature and their - this was so clear - world class musicianship.

One of the most laudable elements of the Hebridean Celtic Festival is the manner in which the organizers are happy - eager, even - to take risks with overseas bands that are relatively unknown here.

Not that booking Mark Saul's band represented anything of a risk. Their fusion of pipes, flute, fiddle, guitar, drums and electronica was not gimmicky (as is the case with some bands), it was outstanding, it was a genuine and successful attempt at melding the best aspects of disparate musical forms into an uplifting, dynamic new realization.

Importantly, their samples - including everything from a happily recognizable teuchy voice to a train - were appropriate additions to superbly crafted songs rather than pieces of superficial aural wallpaper, as is sometimes the case in bad dance music.

Mark Saul has done well to find musicians as talented in their fields as he is in his. The amiable Aussies provided the final HebCelFest audience of 2005 with a near-flawless treat and it was amusing to watch the guitarist play the guitar behind his head, as if he was confusing the Isle of Lewis with the Isle of Wight.

This gig rocked, rolled, danced and Mark Saul's band easily won over the crowd. The audience loved them, they loved the audience and furthermore they loved the fact the audience loved them (and vice versa). If you see what I mean.

Mark Saul's band have so many terrific songs that missing one of their gigs is a crime against the unwritten rule you have that life is for enjoying.

Yet again the local rumours proved unfounded. There was a story going round that Capercaillie would be playing a surprise number or two because their fiddler (or, as it was reported to me, their fiddlist) was allegedly seen in town. Better still was the rumour that Donnie Dotaman would be crashing the stage at midnight to provide an anthemic version of 'An Tractar a th' agamsa' by popular demand. (Though the Elvis Presly rumour I reported proved only half true; he's actually playing the Festival Club next year).

Things turned balloontastic as Shooglenifty took to the stage for the final concert of this historic festival. The band mentioned that they played in Stornoway's town hall ten years ago to 150 people, and now here they were playing to many thousands of excited punters.

Improbably featuring a Billy Connolly lookalike on fiddle (and what a stupendously good fiddler he is), Shooglenifty's music really does defy easy categorisation. For all their talk of Acid Croft (B' eolach do sheanmhair air an acid croft) and hypnofolkodelica (easier to listen to than pronounce), their sound is quite unique, blending more influences than you could list while dancing heavenwards on their musical trampoline.

Shooglenifty have something of a cult following and it's easy to see (hear) why. Their inventive musical shapes set patterns flowing through the ears that are akin to the way that Celtic knotwork attracts, pleases and won't let go off the eyes. They had the audience in the palm of their hands.

And the audience wouldn't let them go until they had done a second encore!

Thus the festival ended with yet another memorable gig. It used to be that Christmas was the time of year when ex-pat islanders came home and met up with friends they hadn't seen for ages. Now not only does the Hebridean Celtic Festival provide Leodhasaich with an excuse to come back, it also encourages people from all over the world to visit our island.

This festival has been universally acknowledged as the biggest and best yet. It brings in over one and a half million pounds to the local economy, it showcases our island's beauty and its warm-hearted people to the world and it provides thousands of people with memories they will never forget. How cool is that?

The Lewis penchant for indulging in a little healthy pessimism soon encourages the mind towards gloom: Yes, it was a great festival, they cry, but the organisers can't possibly top that next year.

Can't they?

Wait and see!

Kevin's Random Bit at the End

Email of the day: Surprisingly, there have been a few. According to your emails, my festival reports have been curiously popular. I have now been asked to consider offers to be official writer at 'Feis nam Maragan Dubha', the Great Garryvard Hell's Angels Gathering and, of course, the annual get-together of Rhenigidale's second-best gaming club, the Tiddlywinkers of Death.

Woman of the day: Caroline MacLennan. Being Festival Director, she directs the festival, see? In fact, the entire team, from medics to volunteers to security to publicity to the guy who ensures that Van Morrison's extensive list of knock-knock jokes are hidden from the public all deserve the highest congratulations. This festival doesn't happen by accident. In fact, imagine how much effort goes into organizing a festival the size of the HCF. Now multiply that by ten. And double it. Now you're getting close. All their efforts are appreciated by the many thousands of people who benefit from the festival.

Quote of the day: "I've just had an aftershock. What is it?"

Lost items of the day: I had an extensive list of lost items, but it, uh, went missing.

Music-related jokes of the day:
(1) What do you get if you play New Age music backwards? New Age music.
(2) What do you get if you play blues songs backwards? Your wife comes back home, your dog comes back to life and you get out of prison.

Final thanks of the day: Thanks to all the musicians and audience members who made this festival so hugely successful.

www.KevinMacNeil.com