Ceol Cholasa 2016
Ceol Cholasa 2016 – Review
Another year has gone by and, as I sit here munching my Cal Mac Breakfast Roll, it’s time to reflect on an epic Colonsay Music Festival.
It started with the Wednesday ferry trip from Oban and feeling that magical Ceol Cholasa atmosphere building as I met up with other festival regulars. After settling in, it was time to pop up to the quiz. This year we only came second but that didn’t decrease the amount of whisky consumed.
Luckily, due to changes in the ferry timetable, the festival didn’t actually begin until 4;30 so that gave enough time for my hangover to dissipate before the opening concert. It was snappily entitled “Niall, McNeill, McNeill, and MacNeill plus guests” and featured Niall and Pedie, Caitlin and Liam and Seumas with Keir joining them for the finale. It was an excellent show with outstanding tune sets from Liam on guitar and Caitlin’s flying fingers on the banjo and some superb songs from the assembled company. The highlight was probably Liam singing “Longshot”. It was very moving.
Time for a break to meet the boat and say hello to the next group of festival regulars and then it was back to the hall for the day’s main event. I am a huge Skipinnish fan and was delighted to hear they were on the bill this year. The hall was packed and Skipinnish did what they do best. The hall was perhaps a little smaller than their ideal venue but I enjoyed every second of it. The slow start to “The Island” was excellent and “Piper to the End” was a great moment. By the finale of “Walking on the Waves” the hall was jumping and my voice had just about gone from singing along.
As most of the band left immediately after the concert on a RIB, the first night at the Festival Club was a little quieter than usual. It was a good chance for a catch-up and blether. Then Alasdair from Skipinnish arrived and got his pipes out and things got a little livelier. We were also treated to the worst out-of-time dancing ever witnessed at Ceol Cholasa. It was so bad it was good!
The first of the Lunchtime Sessions was next and it was a good one. Pedie kicked off with a couple of Kris Drever songs and then some of the regulars did their stuff. John Evans was, as ever, excellent. The undoubted highlight of the session (and indeed, the whole festival) was when Niall & Pedie got together to sing Runrig’s “Hearts of Olden Glory”. It was simply stunning and a genuine spine-tingling moment.
The first afternoon concert on Day 2 was the Local Talent Showcase. This was a varied and well-performed show. All the performers were on top form with the Schoolchildren being the highlight. Colonsay’s music definitely has a good future. Another highlight was Niall & Pedie with their rendition of the David Francey song, “Wonder”.
The second show of the afternoon saw the Ceol Cholasa debut of American duo, Hungrytown. Their set of self-penned songs, delivered with the minimum of fuss, was very nice. I loved “The Rose and the Briar” and, as I write this, four days and many bands later, “Hungrytown Road” is still going through my head. That is the sign of a good song!
After another boat had come and gone, it was time for the first of the weekend bands to entertain us. The Angus Nicolson Trio produced a gem of a set. Pipe tunes old and new, played with passion and precision, coupled with the odd story or two made this an outstanding concert. Angus on pipes and whistle with Andrew on percussion and Murdo on guitar had the audience whooping with delight. It was a fine Ceol Cholasa debut and I look forward to seeing them again in the future.
Next up was the return of last year’s stars, Laura-Beth Salter and Jenn Butterworth and it was great to see them again. “Let the Sun Shine Down on Me” was epic and the set sparkled along with tunes, songs and easy banter. “The Great Divide” was even better than last year and it was an absolute joy to listen to the girls again.
The final act of Friday evening was Litha. With Aaron Jones on bouzouki, Claire Mann on whistles and flutes, Gudrun Walther on fiddle and accordion and Jurgen Treyz on guitar, this band were a revelation. Excellent tune sets coupled with songs in English and German made for a varied and highly enjoyable concert. The four-part harmony vocals on “Waterlilly” were superb and it completed a stunning day of concerts.
The Festival Club on Friday night took on what is becoming the normal shape with the “real” musicians, joined by some of the locals, playing in one room and the “Old Fogeys” setting up for a song session in the back room. I listened to the musicians for a while and then wandered through to the back. As I was listening to the songs flow, a certain gentleman commented that everyone in that room was born in the 50’s or before. After I kicked him in the shins I settled down for a great night of old songs. From Hank Williams to Simon & Garfunkel via “The Auld Triangle”, it was truly enjoyable night. Being able to take a few steps and hear some of Scotland’s (and Germany’s) finest musicians playing non-stop tune sets while a certain Scot’s singer relaxed on her chair, it was almost unbelievable. I haven’t been fit to dance for a few years but I somehow ended up doing a bit of a Highland Schottische at the end of the night (thanks Jen!) Add in the craic that was going on in-between the two sessions and it was seriously good fun.
Saturday started with another great session in the pub at lunchtime. With my wrist problem limiting my guitar playing, Seumas and I just did a couple of songs to kick things off then some of the regulars took over. John was in excellent form and he finished his set with “North West Passage” which has become a firm festival favourite. Allison, Eugene and Stephen all did their bit but the highlight was when Pedie was joined by his Granddaughters, Helen and Sally, for “The Hall in 59”. It was almost cuteness overload.
The first Hall concert of the day was the return of Jenn Butterworth and Laura-Beth Salter. From the opening of “Come to Jesus” this was another sparkling set. “The Braver One”, about the downside of Glasgow life was excellent and has the makings of a classic. There was some doubt about having the same act two years running but the girls made it work and I would love to see them back again.
The second set from the Angus Nicolson Trio was next and they began with a double pipe set with Andrew joining Angus on the big pipes for a cracking opening. The set went from strength to strength and was rounded off with a stunning encore set. Angus, Andrew and Murdo delivered two cracking sets this weekend and were probably the unexpected stars of this year’s line-up.
A brief meal break followed, filled by some excellent Curry from my Carluke cousins and then it was time to return for the evening session at the Hall.
Hungrytown got the evening underway with another set of excellent harmonies and well-crafted songs. I had just started to get the song out my mind but this set cemented “Hungrytown Road” in there forever.
It was then time for Claire Hastings to make her Ceol Cholasa debut and it was a cracker. Accompanied by the omnipresent Jenn Butterworth on guitar, Claire gave us a set of varied songs, from the sing-along of “I missed the Boat” to the magic of “The Irish Boy”, it was a pleasure to witness. “Come Spend a While Wi’ Me” is the perfect festival song and had some audience members close to tears. A truly magnificent set.
The final concert of the evening saw the return to Ceol Cholasa of Daimh. The band have undergone some line-up changes since there previous appearance on Colonsay (either that or the lead singer has had some major plastic surgery) but the essence remains the same. Great driving tune sets interspersed with sumptuous Gaelic songs that had the audience whooping with delight and it was an excellent set. The highlight came during the encore when Angus played a solo on the pipes and was then joined by Ellen for a song. This was one of these moments when you realise just how good the sound is at this event. The Great Highland Bagpipe and voice in perfect balance for a wonderful moment.
At this point I should mention that, between all these gigs, there was excellent food available. Margaret’s pies were sensational, Gavin and Morag’s burgers (especially the Colonsay beef ones) were exceptional and the food in the Hotel was beautiful and served with a smile. Thanks to all!
Ceilidh time next and it was a bit quieter this year but that only meant more room for the dancers. The Jen MacNeill Band, this year featuring Sileas Sinclair on the box, provided the great tunes that kept the dancers dancing and the watchers clapping and tapping along. Meanwhile, in the Hall Bar, Liam kept us entertained with his one-liners, the best of which was… far too inappropriate to be repeated on a public blog!
Up to the final night of the Festival Club next and it just keeps on getting better. (I should also mention here that, on the way up, I re-acquainted myself with what is becoming another festival tradition. Yes, the Blueberry Vodka was back!) Another great session split between the musicians and old fogeys but this time the average age of the old fogies’ room was seriously lower. This was perfectly illustrated by Jen, Morna and Freya leading the company in an excellent rendition of “Disco 2000”. It was epic! Again, it was a case of moving between the two rooms to try and get the best of both worlds. Going from “Claire Island” to an outstanding tune set, back through for “Bobby Magee” and then back in time to hear Ellen singing a beautiful Gaelic song, it was just another stunning night of music. I have to say thank you to the pros for two nights of non-stop brilliant music. They just never flagged. Neither, of course, did Niall, Pedie and the rest of the back room crew. Great stuff!
That just left enough time for a quick rendition of “Jessie’s Car” on the road outside and the night was done and dusted.
Sunday began with a trip to the pub to pack up my guitar and grab some food (and a beer) before heading to the Hall for the final stretch.
Claire Hastings and Jenn Butterworth (yes, again) kicked things of with a lovely set. The girls work well together and the highlights for me were the amusing “B&B in Dundee” and a beautiful performance of “Mother Glasgow”. I loved every minute of the set and this just nudged them ahead of Angus Nicolson to become my favourite act of the year.
The return of Litha was next and they produced another great set of songs and tunes. I love Aaron’s voice on the Scot’s songs and the musicianship on the tune sets is outstanding. Claire produced a Flute that was almost bigger than her and, although it looked like she may overbalance at times, the sound was lovely. Highlight though was undoubtedly the beautiful German song about the Moonlight (no, I haven’t taken a note of the name). The four part harmonies were exquisite.
Then it was left to Daimh to bring things to an end and they did so magnificently. Super tunes, beautiful singing and great banter made for a really warm and enjoyable set. The Visit Scotland slogan was a thing of beauty! The set also included two unexpected highlights. It started with Ellen dissolving into a fit of the giggles when teaching us a Gaelic song. I really thought she was completely gone and she did well to recover. Then Murdo was attacked by a giant daddy long legs, much to the amusement of the audience and the bemusement of those on and off stage who wondered what we were laughing at. It was a great way to end the final concert.
That brought us to the drawing of the Super Raffle and the star prize of two nights in the Hotel went, rather fittingly, to the most successful raffle ticket seller in Ceol Cholasa history.
By this stage, the weekend’s musicians and singers had gathered on the stage for the grand finale. Aaron led the assembled cast in “Saints and Sinners” and then the two Angus’s led the last glorious tune set to bring a fantastic festival to an end.
As the boat rang with Goodbyes, hugs, handshakes and cries of “see you in 359 days” it was time to head back to reality and look forward to the great tenth anniversary in 2017.