Trip down memory lane at HebCelt festival

BY MURRAY MACLEOD
murray.macleod@whfp.co.uk

The 19th Hebridean Celtic Festival, held in Stornoway last week, was very much a walk down memory lane for many of the festival-goers, with a coming together of global cultures thrown into the mix for good measure.

With headline acts including Donnie Munro, Big Country and the Levellers, it was always going to attract a more mature crowd than usual.

Big Country were the big draw on the main stage on Friday night. Of course, the line-up no longer contains front-man Stewart Adamson and of the original members only one remains.
Probably as a result of the warm weather on the night and the older age profile of those who came to experience the sound of Big Country once again, there were as many people gathered outside the tent as there were inside, with the distinctive — if now admittedly dated — songs and guitar riffs acting like a musical backdrop to a big social gathering.

On the Thursday evening Donnie Munro took to the stage and rolled back the years with a number of Runrig hits — always a favourite with the HebCelt crowd — and a collection of his own solo work.
Then it all came to a rousing climax with a tremendous set from festival favourites the Levellers. The songs may now date back 20 years or so, but they are as a catchy and as recognisable as ever and the political overtones of their lyrics are as pertinent in 2014 as they were in 1994, with a strong anti-war and egalitarian message.

As the tent reverberated to the sound of songs like “It’s a Beautiful Day” and “One Way”, it was easy to see why this folk-rock band could at the height of their popularity attract massive crowds at much bigger festivals like Glastonbury. They are, however, a brilliant fit for the HebCelt.

An unexpected bonus was the appearance of an eerily-painted didgeridoo player, with the deep, rhythmic sound vibrating around the big tent. When the rest of the band joined in, it was a joy to behold.
The sight of a didgeridoo on a stage in Stornoway was by no means the only example of cultural fusion.

The talk of the festival was the performance from Boomerang, who opened the main arena on the Thursday evening. They somehow managed to bring together ancient bagpipe tunes, Maoiri chanting, didgeridoos and Gaelic waulking songs, under the theme of celebrating indigenous Commonwealth cultures. It certainly set the scene for the next three days.

Bringing it down to a more local level, there was always going to be a tremendous reception for Willie Campbell and his band the Open Day Rotation, with Campbell — widely recognised as one the finest musicians to come out of the islands in recent years — giving the audience a flavour of his recently-released Gaelic album “Dalma”. Both he and his band will surely be a feature of the main stage from now on, and deservedly so.

There was another local favourite in the shape of Norrie MacIver from Callanish, which demonstrates the real advances made by the festival organisers in developing and showcasing home-grown talent.
Also worthy of a mention are “Wee Banjo 3”, a group of four brothers from Galway who play a mixture of bluegrass and traditional Irish tunes and certainly know their way round string instruments. The fact they had the tent jumping without the need for loud drums, electric guitars or keyboards is testament to their undoubted skills as musicians.

Both in terms of the music and as a cultural showcase, this was again a successful event — even if it wasn’t as busy as in some previous years. Next year will see the festival mark its 20th anniversary, a tremendous feat. What chance a return visit from Runrig?