Orkney Blues Festival September 16th-18th 2005
I must alert all readers to a degree of bias at the outset of this review - I always enjoy the Orkney Blues Festival, and this year proved no exception!
A warm welcome, great music, excellent food and wonderful local ales make this event very special. Despite the benefit of full use of the the Stromness hotel being denied to organisers due to an error on the part of the Tourist Board (that saw Saga Tourists in the accommodation traditionally made available to performers) Colin and Barbara still managed to create a fantastic event. Much more intimate than many mainland festivals, the close interaction between artists and audiences here makes this an event that every blues fan should visit.
As usual, the first event of the festival was held in the Hamnavoe Lounge in the Stromness Hotel, with the Charlie Morris Band, in semi-unplugged mode, setting the agenda for the weekend. Hailing from Florida, the band was on the last leg of their " Gator 'N' Chips tour of the UK that had included a show at the Colne Festival too. Playing an infectious mix of original songs and some rarely- heard covers, the band eased the crowd into the weekend. Special mention must go to the ultra-talented sideman Devin Rice, who displayed great virtuosity on harp, keys and guitar! The band was obviously well appreciated by the crowd, and set the tone for a great weekend of Blues.
The next act up in the Stromness Hotel was the stunning Jim Murray, stalwart of the Hokum Hotshots. His look-alike travelling fan club clearly showed the regard this guy is held in, and his performance here was as good as any I have had the good fortune to see him deliver. Again mixing classic material from the likes of Leadbelly and Mississippi Fred McDowell with some original songs, Jim held the audience spellbound for the duration of his show and beyond! Whether finger-picking guitar, playing mandolin or on slide, he was never less than mesmerising throughout and this was the gig of the festival for me!
Having been unable to catch the Son Henry Band at either Dundee or Arbroath Festivals (but with high expectations after hearing so much about his performances) I relished the chance to see him here on the Saturday afternoon. And he certainly lived up to his recommendations! Playing both electric slide and a lap slide guitar in various tunings, he and his band produced a lively and engaging set with some unusual twists (such as setting Houndog Taylor's "Give Me Back My Wig" over a Texas swampy groove, or utilising a glass ashtray as both head wear and slide!) Alaskan-born Henry did a sterling job for the crowd in Stromness, before heading to Kirkwall to open for the British Blues Allstars. I trust the glass in his car survived the excitement of that trip!
Regreatably, I was unable to attend that show. However, by many accounts Peter Green is even less well now than when I felt hugely embarrassed to be part of a paying audience (and left a venue after only three numbers, quite distraught by what I had witnessed) when he toured with The Splinter Group some eight years ago. Whilst his name is a draw for many, I feel perhaps it would be kinder not to allow him onto stage when he is patently so unwell.
Mr Riff from the Isle of Man eased the festival into its last day and the Flattie Bar was busy as it could be, as the top-hatted troubadour did his thing to no little appreciation. Too soon it was time to head upstairs to the Festival Club in the Stromness hotel, where the incendiary Gerry Jablonski was opening for this afternoon's main event, Tam White's Shoestring. For anyone who hasn't seen Gerry perform, try imagining Pete Townsend crossed with Alvin Lee, with a pinch and a half of Jimmy Page to top things off. He is a guitar hoodlum! The things he does with an acoustic guitar are illegal, I believe, in most countries, but boy does he deliver what people want! Gerry already carries the accolade of most popular act at Dundee's Blues Bonanza this year, he held a crowd at the Arbroath Festival enthralled for one hour and twenty minutes over his allotted time, and now Orkney fell to his aural and visual assault. From original material to rock classics like Zep's Kashmir and folksy, sensitive songs such as John Martyn's Solid Air, Gerry proved that nothing was beyond his reach in an afternoon show where the audience' reaction went up a notch with each song performed. A barnstorming performance!
Tam White settled down in a chair, perhaps to distinguish his more languid set of tunes after Gerry's rabble-rousing set. Playing acoustic guitar, and accompanied by Fraser Spiers on harps and Neil Warden on electric guitar, Tam mixed new gospel influences with tasteful blues and folk. The trio enthralled the audience, easily encouraging their participation in the response coda of Tam's original "Save Me." A highlight of their set was a particularly sensitive treatment of Robert Burns "A Slave's Lament." I have been fortunate to witness many Tam White shows over the years and this one reminded me just why I keep going back!
In a complete contrast, the party -on -tour that is Roost was next on my agenda as they burned in the compact venue of the Ferry Inn. Hailing from Glasgow, this 5 piece have a singer to rival Maggie Bell, a rhythm section to rival any band out there and a superb 2 guitar attack. Doing just what was needed to fuel the party atmosphere, they went down the proverbial storm (as usual!)
More good time rocking stuff from the Ready Eddies in the Hamnavoe Lounge before the full boogie tilt version of Charlie Morris Band's capabilities in the Ferry Inn really pushed my buttons. This could have been just the show to wind up the festival, but it was the 35th anniversary of Jimi's death, and Lefty with Hendrix Re-Experienced was just the ticket for the Sunday night close of festival show. With a groovy light show and groovier sounds, it was off- down -memory- lane time as Lefty took us on a whistle stop tour of all the things that made Jimi Hendrix such an icon. Whilst some people did bitch about a tribute band wrapping things up at the festival, in honouring the memory of the man who moved music so far in such a startlingly short period of time, I believe the organisers had again nailed the mood of their audience. A great gig to end another great festival. I only hope that I can return to enjoy it again next year!