Could there be a better choice of tune to open HebCelt 2017 than Crossing the Minch? If there is, I can’t think of it, and it was also the perfect choice of tune to open the Between Islands show in An Lanntair last night.
This was a showcase of three island fiddle players — Jane Hepburn from Lewis, Maggie Adamson from Shetland and Louise Bichan from Orkney.
The Wednesday night concert in An Lanntair traditionally opens HebCelt and it was a full house.
I was very impressed but it wasn’t what I had expected. It was more complex and richer than I had expected from a trad show. This may be my own ignorance, but what I had anticipated was more of a line-up of fiddlers. Aly Bain times three, if you like, or a Blazin Fiddles gig.
It was an almost symphonic sound, with added funk. It was smoking hot at times — as you’d expect from the presence of Shetlander Maggie — and that groove was probably Orcadian.
As a whole piece though, it did sound orchestral and this could not have been achieved without Neil Johnstone on cello and Andy Yearly on piano, plus accompanying guitarists Brian Nicholson, who plays with Maggie, and Connor Hearn, who is joining Louise on tour from across the Atlantic.
It was very impressive and did what a HebCelt opening concert should do — it presented old traditions, some of them not so well known, and showed them all in a new light.
The concept of the show, which was devised by Alex Macdonald of An Lanntair, was to bring together three musicians from Lewis, Shetland and Orkney to explore the differences and similarities between the islands traditions.
It was a good choice by Jane to open with Crossing the Minch — the appropriateness and familiarity made me smile — and a lot of the tunes she chose were seminal ones, of the place. We heard Mairi’s Wedding too, plus Lovely Stornoway by Calum Kennedy — “if you don’t know it you should be ashamed of yourself” – and a good few from Pipe Major Donald Macleod.
There were amazing versions, too, of An Aitearachd Ard — played as a slow air not a waltz — and Balaich an Iasgaich. Costello would’ve been proud.
The choices were very traditional but as Jane had told me previously she is long past the stage of choosing tunes “because they’re cool or contemporary” and is now reflecting on what’s most definitively Hebridean. Partly because she’s been involved in this project.
She said: “The concept is really nice because I do consider myself quite an Outer Hebridean player, musically. It’s quite an interesting project because I just play how I play but this project has made me learn why I play like I play.
“When I started listening to Louise and Maggie I realised how different their playing was to mine. Maggie from Shetland is quite rhythmic — a lot of their playing originated for dancing, so it’s very rhythmical and the bowing is very strong.
“Whereas for me, a lot of the time I’m thinking about how to decorate the notes and that comes from listening to bagpipe music and Gaelic singing. That’s quite influential in my playing.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Shetland and Orkney playing — The Chair, Aly Bain, Fiddlers Bid — and actually the fiddle tradition here in Lewis and Harris isn’t as strong.
“There was only a handful of fiddle players when I was growing up. It was more of a Shetland and Orkney tradition where I think there was a lot of Nordic and Dutch influence.
“There is a commonality though because the way of life is the same – there are common themes such as the sea — and there are the ceilidhs. We all share that.”
The sea was certainly a common theme in the show, which was a mix of favourite tunes from all the islands plus their own compositions. All three women are excellent composers and some of the highlights from the concert were pieces they had written themselves.
One of my favourites was Swanbister, a composition by Louise about the place she grew up, while a range of tunes composed by Jane about places in the Hebrides — from Tangasdale to Rhenigidale and Mangersta — all captured the place very well.
Jane said: “I’ve chosen to write tunes about places here or tunes about the emotions to do with the islands and I think that’s because we’ve been thinking so much about why we play the way we do.”
Her most obvious composition of this type was Cianalas — the Gaelic name for that profound homesickness that afflicts islanders — but, for me, the one that captured ‘home’ the most was The Big Minch.
“It’s meant to feel like being on the ferry – but in a good way,” she said. And it did! Somehow, she had captured the anticipation of heading home and the rise and fall of the boat, with that hesitancy that comes from never quite knowing what the boat is going to do next. It was like the sound of being on the old Isle of Lewis rather than the Loch Seaforth, which is much more predictable.
Continuing the boat theme, another highlight was the New Rigged Ship, led by Maggie. Holy smoke, you could fairly hear her Shetland heritage here. There was another belter, The Hangman’s Reel, made famous by Aly Bain, and I also loved her last number with Brian, The Hockney, which was a right cheeky chappy of a tune.
I couldn’t help but think, during the show, that it would have been impossible to choose a favourite. That would have been like trying to choose a favourite child. Each had their own personality.
With Lewis heavily influenced by piping and Gaelic singing, and the strong bowing style of Shetland usually emphasising the back beat or the off beat, Louise described Orkney as being “more swung, lilty, happy, jolly dance music” .
My favourite moments from her included The Svecia, a piece written Orkney fiddler Douglas Montgomery of Saltfishforty.
This was an enchanting, almost Eastern-sounding piece inspired by a shipwreck off North Ronaldsay in 1740. Go find it online and have a listen if you don’t know it. It’s incredible.
The other moment that matched this in terms of impact was a piece by Louise which worked in an old recording of her late grandmother singing on radio years and years ago.
She had shared good stories about her granny with the audience and then shared an amazing piece of videography on the big screen to support the music and the stories she had told.
A graduate of Glasgow School of Art, who is now at Berklee College of Music in Boston on a full scholarship, Louise’s talent with a camera was clear to see.
When Maggie’s not playing the fiddle, she’s a bosun on the Tall Ships and is recently back from Scandinavia. Maggie hopes to have her skipper’s ticket — a Yachtmaster Offshore — by the end of the year. A shot of her up the top of a mast showed this aspect to her life and was a suitable backdrop to some of the nautical numbers.
Meanwhile, Jane is part of the Harris Tweed Authority Team who ‘protect the Orb’ and the large-scale photos of her at work showed this too.
Multi-dimensional in life and multi-dimensional in sound.
The whole show was incredibly tight which was amazing when you realise they only had two days to rehearse together in Stornoway, all the earlier preparations having been done via Skype.
Afterwards, Alex said: “Individually they are amazing. Together they’re world class.”
She added: “They’re not chosen randomly. They’re chosen because they are the best people to do this project and I could see them working together.”
This were comments Alex has also used to describe the first Between Islands gig, which brought together singer-songwriters Willie Campbell from Lewis with Kris Drever from Orkney and Arthur Nicholson from Shetland.
As festival opening nights go, last night was up there with the likes of Hebridean Women last year and the Murdo Macfarlane Songbook.
“Very special is how I would describe it,” said Alex. “People were privileged to see that tonight and probably will remember it.”
An Lanntair hosts the Gaelic stage for the rest of the festival and folk can look forward to Willie Campbell’s Dalma tonight and Calum Alex MacMillan tomorrow, with Na h-Òganaich on Saturday.