ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE SKINNY
It was bookended with a pair of boats, some seals, a few dolphins and what seemed like a sea-load of jellyfish. In between, scattered among the woods and the hills, the streams and the rocky, volcanic residue, were hikes and days without rain. There were cobweb-annihilating dips in the Sea of the Hebrides and dawn choruses from the sheep, cows and birds – all full-time residents of the Isle of Eigg, welcoming the pilgrims from the mainland.
A pilgrimage: that’s what, looking back, a trip to Eigg feels like. Those who made it were seeking fresh air and good music. They left with their lungs full and their ears singing, the smell of campfire lingering on their hair and clothing, a place reserved in every heart for the wonderful Isle of Eigg.
Lost Map could have booked anyone for the debut Howlin’ Fling. The tickets were bought before a band was announced. But they didn’t: they put together three days of the highest quality sounds. This was a weekend loaded with moments that will live long in the memory.
Even before an official note had been played, the spectacle of Sam Amidon with his banjo, joined in the Friday afternoon sunshine outside the tearooms by uilleann piper Griogair Labhruidh and fiddler Gave McVarish, set a weekend-long tone which reflected the ethos of the island: laid back, collaborative and bloody good craic.
Amidon returned for a set in the Marquee on Friday evening and, naturally, was joined by his wife Beth Orton. The pair had been holidaying with their young children on Eigg for the week and, when the time came to perform, seemed as smitten with the place as the rest of us.
He is something of a musical archivist, Amidon. He sings songs plucked from the annals of Americana and writes pastoral folk nuggets of his own. In these eyes, his catalogue thus far has peaked with the sublime I See The Sign (2010) and from that, we heard delicious renditions of the breezy Johanna The Row-di and the austere Way Go Lily. When he didn’t have us blubbing with his funereal dirges, we were snickering at his endearingly goofy humour, including a “Bruno Mars-inspired” tribute to the recently-passed Charlie Haden.
When Orton arrived, accompanied by Amidon of course, she played a set mainly plucked from her magnum opus: Central Reservation, which she’s recently toured to mark its 15th anniversary. The title track in particular stirred memories of Orton’s late-90s breakthrough. The songs are simple, and Orton seemed nervous, but the quality was unmistakable.
Having Steve Mason and his full band on the island was something of a coup for Lost Map. The lot of them could be seen wandering around the island for the day and a half before their show and Mason clearly had time to explore. “I’ve played some crazy places in my time, but this place takes the biscuit!” he quips, before taking a select few cuts from last year’s Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time. His patter is as politically-charged as the tunes: “This one’s about Tony Blair, the slimy Middle East envoy… cunt…” he snarls before launching into the soaring Fire, which, along with A Lot of Love, was the highlight of a fine set.
The anthropomorphic trilogy of WOLF, Woodpigeon and eagleowl got Saturday going in fine style, with the latter displaying a previously unknown acrobatic bent by rounding their set off with a human pyramid. Seamus Fogarty’s been working on a more electronic live show, as befits his debut album, and it sounded splendid in the Marquee: he’s got a rare talent for sticking peculiar field recordings in the right place. Few would find any place for the horse racing commentary. Fogarty did, and it sounded great.
Leeds four-piece Adult Jazz impressed with an exciting, busy taster of their debut record (out this week). The singer has a touch of Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) about him, but the music is less simple to pinpoint. Swedish raconteur Jens Lekman is a man who has appeared on few bills in recent years, so to see him on the roster at Howlin’ Fling was a surprise and pleasure. In inimitable style, he conjured up songs on just about anything, including a couple of cuts from the still-excellent Night Falls on Kortedala from 2007, before offering to serenade anyone in the crowd who saw him wandering on the island with his guitar.
Boxed In, led by Steve Mason’s keys player Oli Bayston, provided some late night krauty, synth pop par excellence, to make sure there wasn’t an idle toe in the Ceilidh Hall. And despite arriving on Eigg after a weekend of calamity, the Phantom Band were in sparkling form.
They’d had their guitars nicked prior to playing Latitude Festival, before making their way to the island, and then their band broke down on the way up. Hats off to Redbeard and co then, for tearing up the stage and keeping the spirits high. Special mention should be reserved for The Howling from debut set Checkmate Savage which, even for non-nomenclatural reasons, stole the show on Howlin’ Fling’s Saturday night.
Eigg is a broad church and somewhat fittingly, Sunday brought the most varied line-up of the weekend. None were more idiosyncratic than Japanese performance artist-slash-one-man-band Ichi. “This song is about kumquat,” he goes, delicately, before launching, even more delicately, into a song about the aforementioned fruit. A set ornamented with ping pong balls, steel drums and xylophone was just the tonic for the fragile heads of the Marquee. Certainly the most fascinating performance of the weekend.
Having seen them in impromptu sunshine session at the beginning of the weekend with Sam Amidon and enjoyed numerous campfire songs after dark, the appetite was well whetted for Griogair Labhruidh and Gave McVarish’s set in the Ceilidh Hall (obviously). Each of the pair is equally dextrous on their respective pipes and fiddle, with Labhruidh’s emotive and enduring voice telling tales in Gaelic that even those without a word could fathom. Along with fellow traditionalists, the more fleshed-out local band Metta, they brought the house down – a welcome addition to Sunday’s bill.
By the time he took to the stage as the Pictish Trail, Johnny Lynch – he behind the Lost Map record label and, by extension, Howlin’ Fling – had already dazzled with his mad skills in programme-writing ability, compering and wolf howling. Hearing him perform tracks from the brilliant Secret Soundz Volume 2 on the island in which they were recorded was a treat. Also poignant was the opportunity to see one of the last Meursault live shows, after Neil Pennycook announced that he was to hang up the moniker and move on to pastures new. They’ve kept us on our toes for the guts of a decade and a rollicking show in the Marquee ensured that Pennycook went out as Meursault pretty much the same way as he came in: screaming.
That was supposed to conclude the weekend’s festivities, but having missed an earlier ferry, the honour was bestowed on the irrepressible RM Hubbert. He’s produced a couple of the most beautiful Scottish albums in recent years: contouring his battles with depression through gorgeous guitar instrumentals. And why he doesn’t shy away from these themes while playing live, his patter is droll and warm. Culminating in a solo take on his modern classic Car Song, originally recorded with Aidan Moffat, Hubby’s set was the perfect way to round off the weekend.
It would be fairly easy to hammer out another 5,000 words on how fantastic this weekend, these people and this island were, but it would probably be in vain. Suffice to say, it’s hard to think of a better place to spend your time than on Eigg. That there happened to be such a feast of amazing sounds to enjoy at the same time was a wonderful bonus.