FolkWorld Live Review 12/02. By Michael Moll

Heart of Scotland Festival revisited
Music and sunshine in Aberfeldy in September 2002

Four years ago I trekked into the Heart of Scotland, to the charming town of Aberfeldy, in the centre of gorgeous Scottish scenery. Back then, the first Heart Of Scotland Festival took place. This year I decided to return to the beloved place, to see how the 5th festival would compare to the first...

Aberfeldy, photo by The MollisThe festival has changed significantly during those 5 years. It has been scaled down compared to the ambitious first version - I well remember those excellent concerts five years ago where you could at times though, easily count the audience. The new festival size is more realistic, although it might be already a bit too small to make the journey for the festival alone, worthwhile. Five years ago I criticised the lack of bars in some of the venues; by now, all venues do have beer on offer, so there are improvements.

After five years, a festival should have developed its style and some kind of maturity. What I noticed this year was that the average age of the audience at the festival concerts was comparably high, especially compared to some other Scottish festivals I have been to during the last few years - maybe this can be explained by the rather high ticket prices, or by the time of the year. Also, although there were some folk sessions in the pubs around Aberfeldy, there was not really as much festival atmosphere as there had been at the first edition of the festival. The festival simply did not manage to attract many musicians - workshops were once again not very well visited; for example, the songwriting workshop with Tommy Sands, announced in the programmes with "Book early as places are limited", was attended by only two people.

Nevermind, a journey to Aberfeldy is always worth it - the surroundings are stunning, perfect for long walks, and the festival acts as a welcome bonus.

Scotland has often the reputation of being a very wet place for holidays - I do not really know why; once again this year during the Heart of Scotland Festival we had the most beautiful weather the whole weekend long. We arrived only on Saturday afternoon, just in time for the main concert of the festival on Saturday night...

The festival had started on Friday with a showcase of local music, featuring the Fochabers Fiddlers Frontline as well as the Aberfeldy & District Gaelic Choir, plus the singer Jim Reid. Saturday afternoon offered a special concert in the Castle Menzies, labelled "Paintings Poetry and Music", with paintings from diverse Scottish artists, poetry reading by Ian Anderson and music by Patsy Seddon. The art work was based on a handful of selected poems. The differing interpretations were impressive.

Deaf Shepher, photo by The MollisSaturday evening saw the highlight of the festival, the main concert with Deaf Shepherd and Tommy Sands. Before that, the Inishowen Ceili Band played a short concert set to start the evening off. Tommy Sands has a reputation as a brilliant singer/songwriter from Northern Ireland, writing songs for peace. His songs were touching and his comments witty. On perfect form!
Deaf Shepherd had that night a quite different line-up than we are used to from the CDs, as both one of the fiddlers and the bagpiper were replaced. Claire McLaughlin is on maternity leave, and was replaced by Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid. Rory Campbell meanwhile had been on tour in the USA with the Old Blind Dogs; his replacement was Finlay MacDonald. Nevertheless the Deaf Shepherd magic was fully there - cracking fast tunes, beautiful songs, passionate playing. Scottish music as perfect as you can get it. Deaf Shepherd are still the best traditional live band from Scotland, and temporary line-up changes do no harm to the quality of their music. Obvioulsy it is difficult to replace the skills of one of Scotland's very best pipers and flautists, but Finlay did do a decent job indeed, as did Jenna replacing Claire. Deaf Shepherd's music was once again full of power and passion, with the freshness of highly talented musicians playing in a high profile hobby band. Once the concert part of the evening had finished, chairs were put away to make space for a Scottish ceilidh with the Inishowen Ceili Band...

Alyth McCormack, photo by The MollisSunday offered terrific weather again - too nice really to hang around in sessions or concerts, much better for a decent walk around the famous and enchanting Birks of Aberfeldy and along the banks of the River Tay. The alternative was a piping concert in Castle Menzies, with some of the most famous Scottish pipers, or a concert of local songwriters.

After a day in the sunshine, we went to see the final concert in the beautiful surroundings of Castle Menzies, a perfect setting for a folk concert. The start of the concert was enchanting and rather perfect indeed. It featured the terrific Gaelic singer Alyth McCormack with fiddler Aidan O Rourke, pianist Dave Trouton and double bass player Ewan Vernal. Staying true to the soul of the traditional Gaelic songs, this quartet adds some new flavour to the old traditions. The music has often a traditional, at other times however a bit of a Classical or jazz music feel about it. This is a band to look out for; one of the best Gaelic bands I have heard for a long while.

Shame though that the quality and theme of the evening changed considerably with the final act, Rab Noakes with Fraser Spiers. Their music has not much to do with Scottish or folk music. Rab Noakes is supposedly a popular Scottish songwriter; unfortunately he cannot sing, which does not stop him from singing though. He had been announced by the festival organiser as somebody who always makes out of a concert a happy party. Mmmh, I do not really know how Rab can make people happy, he himself looked rather miserable, and he did not show much of a sense of humour. The only positive light on the concert came from Fraser Spiers, who is a highly talented mouthie player; would love to see him in other collaborations!

Alyth McCormack with band, photo by The MollisNevertheless, a boring performer on stage gives you a wonderful opportunity to look around in the audience. Plenty of big yawns everywhere. Then there was a German tourist group. I caught a bit of their chat before the concert, when a woman told their Scottish tour guide that she believed that she would get inspired by the concert. She did not look inspired at all at this point in the evening, and neither did she look inspired at the first half of the concert. Actually, most of the German group looked the whole evening like they either had just eaten frogs, or were thinking "I really do not know why I am sitting here". Looking a bit further around, some people were already half asleep; others were looking more and more impatient to get out of there. A dog tried his luck to get out through a door, his owner running after him. A few were fully with the concert... However, the sleeping majority was woken up during the last set of the concert by a shrill smoke alarm; Rab just sang on during the alarm. Once it stopped, the last number of the concert was just about over, and we could happily go home, after an evening which was first astonishing, and then amusing. I can understand why the organiser would like to invite him to a party - it is quite good fun to watch the audience while he is playing...

It is good to see that the Heart of Scotland Festival has survived those five years - it is difficult to keep such an event going. I have to admit, I had expected a bit more of the 5th Heart of Scotland festival; however, it is definitely a good reason to travel to Aberfeldy; combining the beautiful autumn days in Scotland's stunning heart with some good concerts. Definitely recommended if combined with a walking shortbreak.

Festival Homepage:
FolkWorld Review of the First Heart of Scotland Festival:

Photo Credit: (1) Aberfeldy, (2) Deaf Shepherd, (3+4) Alyth McCormack (and band). All photos by the Mollis

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