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Reviews - HCF 2010

HCF - Saturday

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Saturday in pictures...



It was a hot debate around the pubs of Stornoway during festival week as to whether credit for this year’s record breaking ticket sales should go the presence on the bill of the mighty Runrig from across The Minch. Whatever the truth, the tent was full to bursting for the final night of the 15th HebCelt Festival. Fans from the band’s strongholds such as Germany, Denmark and Austria made a pilgrimage in numbers to see the band on home soil making up one of the most international of festival attendances ever.


The daunting task of setting the scene for the aristocrats of Scottish folk rock fell to the youthful Breabach, some of who weren’t even around when Runrig first took up their instruments back in the seventies. However, there was absolutely no doubting that they are man and one woman enough for that task. Breabach are one of the most musically gifted set of traditional musicians currently on the circuit. The original four-piece are now five with the addition of the impossibly fresh faced James Lindsay from Inverurie adding a muscular upright bass accompaniment . The thrilling sound of two sets of Highland pipes played in unison had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and the atmosphere in the tent was electric in anticipation of the night’s headliners.

To the background roar of a chorale of thousands of devoted fans, and a spectacular laser light show filling every corner of the Big Blue, Runrig stomped through their catalogue of rousing, anthemic numbers such as "Protect and Survive", "Heart Hammer" and of course the ultimate Scottish rock encore, "Loch Lomond". The faithful hung around called for one more, but all parties have to come to an end and the Hebcelt’s 15th birthday party was no exception. Everyone left smiling though and many were vowing to be back next year.

An Lanntair - Iain Morrison, Ceòl Mòr.

For every boy who follows his father into the family business, there's a dozen more who push all that's expected away and tread their own path. Musically, Iain Morrison is the rare example of a man who has done both. His father, Pipe Major Iain M Morrison, is a distinguished piper of more than local renown, and Iain's handling of a set of pipes comes from tutelage at his father's knee. Yet, there was, by his own admission, a sometimes painful separation from the tradition into which most people expected to see him follow, and excel.

Iain picked up a guitar, and started to experiment. For anyone who remembers Crash My Model Car, it's obvious how far from tradition he was prepared to go. He's someone who compresses music styles, life experience and emotion into a uniquely crafted style both distinctive and impossible to classify.

Saturday night's concert was not quite a one-off. It was performed once before at Glasgow's Celtic Connections, but it's likely never to be performed again. It's a moment of completion in personal and musical terms, both for Iain and, probably, for his father - especially performed to a local audience here in Stornoway. Iain's been drawing together his band, his material and, for tonight, all the threads that have led him here. It shows all his painstaking work in pushing back musical boundaries, but also reaches back across the gulf of growing up to join hands once again with his father's generation.

The title of the concert, Ceòl Mòr, reflects the underlying influences of all the music performed. When the lights went down we were staring at an empty stage, but listening to a recording of Iain Morrison Sr explaining and demonstrating the canntaireachd style of teaching, by which the human voice is used to show how the pipes should sound. Iain ascribes to that style a subtlety and tonality In his understanding of music which explains why poetry and ambient sound can easily enter into his musical palette.

"I'm just going to introduce the older folk, here," said Iain after the opening number. "Rona Lightfoot and my old man." Not quite an introduction. Rona has been described as ‘a ceilidh personified' and is both a piper and a singer. She's also a proponent of Canntaireachd style, and a veritable Wikipedia of musical history.

There they sat, stage right, an elderly lady and gentleman, tapping a foot as crescendos of sound crashed around them, and coming in with sung syllables or spoken Gaelic as the moment required. Iain has built many of his songs around melodies taken from the classical piobaireachd repertoire, but it's astounding how far he has taken what can be done with that. I can only give as an example the last in the set - the oldest recorded piobaireachd, Macintosh's Lament, written in 1526 "And we're going to butcher it," said Iain, before launching into a sound that Led Zeppelin would be quite pleased with.

I am absolutely sure some people in the audience were bamboozled, even affronted, by what was happening. It was a performance of high emotions on and off stage. Respect both to Iain for making the arduous journey, and to PM Morrison (and Rona) for guiding and supporting and for being right there, on stage, in the eye of the storm. For me, this was the concert of the festival.

We had to work extremely hard as an audience to bring the band back for an encore, but we persisted, and got a repeat performance of an earlier number of his recent album Trust the Sea to Guide Me. "But we'll get it right this time," said Iain. It's possible his standards may be too high.

Festival Club - Iain Morrison and Band, Breabach, Face The West.

After the customary interlude while An Lanntair adjusted itself, so to speak, Festival Club and the incomers from the Big Blue were ready at roughly the same time. That meant that those fresh from Runrig also got to see Iain Morrison, (freed from parental constraint, so now drinking beer), with further storming renditions of music from his latest album. It has taken a while for Iain to gather the right musicians around him, but he's pretty much got the perfect collection here - Seamus O'Donnell (drums) and Graeme Neilson (bass) both also provide top-note vocals which are essential to the sound. The bottom note, soulful and melancholy, is Pete Harvey on cello, and the necessary complexity comes from Marc Duff on whistles and bouzouki, and Iain Hutchison on keyboards. Daibhidh Martin also contributes poetry.

Next-up, Breabach - and I'm glad I heard them on the small stage, where you can really enjoy all the details. By now the venue was filling up, and it was the twin bagpipes of Calum MacCrimmon and Donal Brown which brought the first dancers onto the floor. Too short, this set, but a definite future date when they come back, as they surely will.

They wanted a third piper, but James Mackenzie had gone missing.

To reappear with Face The West in glorious, extended form - TWO fiddlers (Jane and Alasdair), Norrie MacIver duck-walking across the back of the stage, was that Breabach's Patsy Reid on the piano? And mad, bad, must be wonderful to know Keith Morrison bonkers on the keyboards.

Someone had brought big number balloons - 51? Or the word IS? Oh yeah! 15! It's a birthday party! Hats were thrown, pointy fingers pointed, festival staff appeared and looked moderately relaxed now that it's all over. The joint jumped. Face the West, so very nearly best live act in Scotland, gave the best live finish you could have hoped for. Happy Birthday, HebCelt!