Northern Roots Festival
The OneTouch Theatre
AFTER five years of trying to bring the people of Inverness of his Northern Roots Festival at Bogbain Farm, Bruce MacGregor seems to have reckoned now is the time to bring Bogbain to Inverness.
So if any Northern Roots regulars were missing Bogbain’s rustic charms following the move from 19th century barn to a proper 21st century theatre, they might have been reassured by the fact that Bruce brought with him his own furniture, a functioning bar with functioning barman in Ben Hesling, a couple of hay bales and even some wildlife in the form of a stuffed otter and fox.
Of which more later.
If the set suggested this was not going to be your typical theatre concert, so it quickly proved being much more Bogbain than bog standard.
Blazin’ Fiddler Bruce turned to one of his other identities for inspiration for the evening. The presenter of BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk created his own imaginary radio station for the opening night of Northern Roots’ Eden Court residency and taking its lead from the live show he broadcasts from Celtic Connections each year with interviews — usefully filling up the time as the next act set up to perform — lots of live music, some laughs and interesting collaborations.
Getting things off to a lively start, The Dirty Beggars didn’t actually need to do a singalong cover of The Weight to show their debt to The Band, but their Celtic tinged Americana made a toe-tapping start to the evening. As Bruce himself said later on, every festival should have The Dirty Beggars.
Blue Rose Code, otherwise known as Ross Wilson, was a more reflective presence with a gentle vibe that was summed up by one critic as "Marvin Gaye meets The Proclaimers", a description that seemed as surprising to Wilson as it seemed unlikely to everyone else.
It seemed to work, though, with Wilson almost taking on the role of host with his easy banter and bringing in touring buddy Bella Hardy on backing vocals.
Energy levels were quickly restored by the evening’s instrumentalist guests, Will Pound and Emma Sweeney.
Pound revealed that he had taken up the harmonica as a boy, having been given one by his father to help with his breathing after open heart surgery.
He has clearly put in a lot of practice since then. The mouthie may be something like Marmite in the world of musical instruments, dividing listeners between those who hate it and those who tolerate it, but if anyone was likely to win converts for the sound of the harmonica, it was Pound.
His blistering set left both player and listeners breathless — if for different reasons — and showed why he was shortlisted for Instrumentalist of the Year in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2014.
He was a tough act to follow, but playing partner Emma Sweeney from Manchester rose to the challenge with some sprightly jigs and reels from her Irish heritage.
If there was one negative from Friday’s show, then it was that little time was left for Bella Hardy’s own set and a couple of more songs from the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Singer of The Year would have been welcome.
The evening wound up with a chance for everyone to sing along, whether on the stage or in the audience, as Wilson led everyone in a cover of John Martyn’s Don’t Want to Know, even getting Helsing out from behind the bar to show off some nifty dance moves with the fiddle player from Blue Rose Code’s backing band.
Adam Holmes is someone who gets quite a few John Martyn comparisons with his laid-back vocal style. He was one of three top class vocalists who headlined Saturday night’s Highland Sessions at the OneTouch, along with Rachel Sermanni from just down the A9 at Carrbridge and Aoife O’Donovan from considerably further away in New England.
If collaboration was an element of Friday’s show, then on Saturday it was to the forefront as the singers became one element of a soundscape that included the lovely vocals of Inverness Gaelic Choir and the top-notch Highland Sessions House Band led by praise-worthy multi-instrumentalists and musical directors for the event Anna Massie and Angus Lyon.
Backing them up were prize-winning Nairn fiddle players Rua MacMillan and Mike Vass, percussionist Greg Barry from up and coming Highland band Elephant Sessions and plenty of more young talent from Fèis Rois.
If the concept of the evening sounded familiar then MacGregor — still at his pretend radio desk — cheerfully owned up to having "nicked" it from television’s Transatlantic Sessions and its boundary breaking fusion of Celtic and Americana roots music.
And why not? It is a concept that works and worked here for one of the most imaginative and moving evening’s the OneTouch is likely to see for a while.
It was a night where what might have been a highlight any other evening was swiftly followed by another from Sermanni serenading that stuffed vulpine with her kookily enchanting Song To A Fox to O’Donovan’s clear country vocals and Holmes reducing the audience to an awed hush with a song about the First World War set against the almost eerie vocals of the Gaelic Choir led by Mary Ann Kennedy.
"Once again it falls on me to follow a song that should only be followed by three hours of complete silence," Sermanni quipped after such a moment of beauty, though her own contributions were equally affecting,
That is not to say it was in any way a downbeat evening, not with gags from MacGregor and the performers and more lively sets such as the one that brought the first half to a close.
With standards like this and an inventive approach to programming an evening of music, it seems fair to say that Northern Roots has made a triumphant move to Inverness from its outskirts.
The bar has been set high for 2015, but I think we can trust Bruce MacGregor and his Northern Roots team to clear it once more.