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Ceol Cholasa – Year Ten

September 22, 2017

Well, where did those ten years go? Yes, Ceol Cholasa celebrated its tenth year and what a cracker it was. It all kicked off with a few fringe events to mark the occasion. The first of these was a guided walk around Garvard Point with Pedie and Dave and it was well attended (although not by me). Then Tuesday afternoon saw a beautiful concert in the new Heritage Centre in the old Baptist Church. The lovely set produced by Sophie Ramsay on guitar and vocals, and Sarah Smout on cello and vocals was a perfect fit for this fine old building. Their rendition of Auld Lang Syne brought a tear to many an eye and their encore, an a cappella version of The Parting Glass, was a delight.

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Tuesday evening saw us return to the Church (some of us an hour early, thanks Liam) for Dave & Pedie’s talk and slideshow entitled “The Last 100”. Some great old photos were shown on the screen as Dave talked us through them and Pedie talked and sang. So many of my relatives from years gone by appeared on the screen it was an emotional night.

The final fringe event on Wednesday afternoon was entitled “A Taste of Colonsay” with a lunch of local foodstuffs enhanced by some tunes and some poetry reading. The food was delicious. There were, among other delights, lamb, venison, lobster, oysters and best of all mouth-wateringly good haggis rolls. I have to say I ate more than my fair share of them. The event was brought to a close by the poetry readings. Richard, Colin and Shonagh read lovely pieces inspired by the land around them but, not for the first time, Pedie stole the show. His poem about life in Machrins was a spine-tingler and tears jerker at the same time and eloquently captured Machrins in days gone by. It was a fabulous event, topped off with my first taste of Wild Island Botanics Gin courtesy of Colonsay Brewery. It was lovely.

The festival proper kicked off on Wednesday evening with the ever popular Local Talent Concert. This was notable for being the first time Liam had sung a solo at a Ceol Cholasa event. By the end of the week, he was an old hand at it. The highlight though, has to be Izzy’s long and ultimately successful search for the next note in the middle of her solo tune. It was an endearing moment in a great wee concert.

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Anthony-John Clarke, a singer-songwriter from Ireland was the main act on Wednesday evening and he put on a great show. Not only did he sing some heart-felt and amusing songs, he was also the funniest man ever to appear at Ceol Cholasa.  His stories had the tears of laughter streaming down the cheeks and songs like The Broken Years brought forward entirely different emotions. It was an absolute joy of a concert and a great start to Ceol Cholasa 10.

The first night of the Festival Club was next on the agenda and it was a nice gentle session to whet the appetite for the magic and mayhem to come.

Day Two started with ever popular Failte Concert, a chance to meet up with old friends and enjoy the craic along with some great music. The music was provided by Pedie, Caitlin & Liam and Sarah & Sophie with a reprise of some of Tuesday’s set for a new and appreciative audience. The second part of the event was a talk by Di Alexander, with readings from his book, “A Potter’s Tale”, and some stories of Colonsay in the 70’s. It was another emotional and highly entertaining session and Di’s signing hand got a good work-out at the end.

The first concert of Thursday evening was The Machrins McNeills and as I was part of it I can’t say much except it was joy to play on the stage with Seumas, Caitlin and Liam in such great form. I will use a quote from Niall Brown on Facebook and say no more. Niall said “The Machrins McNeills were superb – the best I have ever heard them”.

The main act of the evening was Mike Vass & Mairearad Green. Both have appeared at the festival before but this was their first time as a duo. They have both composed some wonderful tunes over the years but, for this project, they have delved into the annals of Highland music and come up with some of the old and largely forgotten tunes. They were, as you would expect, played beautifully with the Gaelic Air being particularly outstanding. The highlight though, was probably The Earl of Hyndford’s Reel, a super-fast, extra-complicated tune which at least one of them managed to get through unscathed. It was a fine performance from Mr Vass and the “Sound of Wester Ross” herself and I am looking forward to listening to the album many times.

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It was then time to head up the road for an unusually early start to the Festival Club and it was a beauty! Some of the guys from Inyal were in full swing when we got there and they were soon joined by Caitlin, Liam, Jen and others as the session grew. It was a pleasure to listen to while catching up with friends and enjoying a small refreshment. After a while, Niall suggested that we move through to the back room and have a go at a few songs. We were joined by a select group of a dozen or so and it developed into one of those great sessions that only seem to happen by accident. Niall was in top form and fielded requests like a pro. Songs from Jim Reeves, Glen Campbell, Don Williams and many more were produced and I chimed in with the inevitable Sonny along with Lucy Jordan and The Great Divide. Seumas joined us for some Corries and Gaberlunzie and we had a ball. Later, as the session that was rather unfairly called “The Young Ones and Jen” wound down, Liam and Keir joined us for some more great songs. It was a cracking night altogether.

The first of the lunchtime open mic sessions was next and although it wasn’t the best attended, it was still highly enjoyable. Seumas & I did a few and a lot of the regulars did their bit too and it was great to see.

The first hall concert of the day was Donald & Jen MacNeill Uncovered. They were introduced by Liam who certainly proved that he is almost a match for Pedie at the acerbic introductions! Pedie & Jen produced a great selection of cover versions with my highlights being Close Your Eyes and the emotional Comedians and Angels. They also did a couple of Pedie’s own songs and Blue Sky, Blue Sea, with its reference to sharing a drink and a song with old friends, was particularly apt after last night’s session.

A complete contrast next with the young experimental trad music act Inyal and they were sensational. The synth and drum backing could be felt through the spine and the juxtaposition with the trad elements of fiddle, smallpipes and whistle was brilliantly done. Their music has so many layers that I immediately wanted to see the show again. The addition of Josie Duncan’s vocals gave the whole thing another level and the Gaelic Air was beautiful. It was a truly remarkable debut.

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The gaps between these concerts were, as ever, filled with an array of local food and drink. The Brewery and the Hotel kept the drink flowing. Gavin and the somewhat cruelly named “Burger Bitch” kept the burgers coming. Margaret’s pies were as delicious as ever and the food in the hotel was lovely. All these things going on behind the scenes help to make this festival great.

The first concert of Friday evening was by Keir ‘n’ the Community. Local shopkeeper and sound engineer (and soon to be Festival Tsar) Keir Johnston was joined by Pedie, Caitlin and Liam and they produced a storming set of Americana that brought the house down. Among the many highlights, there was one of the best moments of the entire festival, when Keir sang Warren Zevon’s Mutineer backed by Caitlin on the keyboard. It was absolutely beautiful.

Next on stage was the Queen of Ceol Cholasa herself, the one and only Kathleen MacInnes. Kathleen appeared in year one and this was her fifth appearance. It was every bit as good as the first four. Relaxed, beautiful singing, expertly backed by Mike Vass and Mhairi Hall, this was a gentle reminder of the depth of talent at this festival. It was about as far removed from Inyal as you can get but it was equally enjoyable.

The final act at the hall on this Friday evening was another returnee from year one. Iain MacFarlane was in Kathleen’s band that year. This time he had joined forces with Ewan Robertson of Breabach and Ceol Cholasa newcomer Dermot Byrne on button box for an absolutely crackling set of tunes and songs. The stories were equally entertaining and when Ewan & Iain sang about Ingie Mhor and Meggie Bhan the tears of laughter were back again. It was another extremely enjoyable set.

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The Festival Club was busy and the craic was flowing along with beer. The session in the main bar was going well but we were a bit disappointed that some of the visiting artists hadn’t arrived to join in. Seumas, Niall and I moved into the Log Room for a few songs and this time we were joined by Alan Davis for some great guitar work and Elaine for some classic jazz. It was another great session and I looked up at one point and discovered the other room was suddenly filled with Elephants and MacFarlane-ites. The session that then started was one of the great ones. Iain was in top form conducting the company and leading the chair dancing as Ceol Cholasa reached a new level of magic.

With great difficulty, I made it back to the Hotel for Saturday’s Pedie-led lunchtime session and it was probably the busiest open mic we have ever had. John gave us the much-requested North West Passage, Stephen became an honorary Machrins McNeill, Mike Vass sang Avril Lavigne and Jen, Pedie and Morna brought chills to the spine with a stunning rendition of Only You. It was a great session.

It seems that Ceol Cholasa is not complete without an appearance by Jenn Butterworth and she was first on at the hall today, accompanying the unbelievably talented fiddler Ryan Young.  Ryan’s performance was majestic and he could almost make the fiddle talk. Jenn’s sensitive accompaniment allowed Ryan to take us through an amazing array of tunes. It was the second sensational debut of the festival.

The second concert of the day saw Keith make a rare appearance onstage alongside Pedie to introduce the first band ever to play at Ceol Cholasa. Rallion marked the occasion by starting off with a reprise of the first song ever sung at the festival all those years ago. They went on to produce a set of songs and tunes that had the feet tapping and the mind going back to the distant days of Ceol Cholasa 1.

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A quick break followed with time for a burger and a very restorative ten minute nap and then it was time to go again. Lorne MacDougall and Friends were the next act on. Lorne has been visiting Colonsay for many years and his piping skills are not in doubt and he showed them off in style. He was, in my opinion, let down a bit by his band. David Foley was excellent on bodhran and Darren and Kathleen’s singing was as good as ever but the rest were, to me, a bit off their game. Having said that, Lorne was very good and they still managed to produce THE moment of the festival for me. The Gaelic song sung by Darren and Kathleen was a majestic piece of work and had me weeping. It was a truly moving and special moment.

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It was then time to welcome back another of the survivors from the first Ceol Cholasa, the Karine Polwart Trio. They gave us a set of beautifully crafted songs that were expertly played and delivered with genuine warmth. Steven’s understated and sometimes overlooked guitar work and vocals and Inge’s ability to produce the most beautiful backing sounds are the perfect backdrop for Karine’s vocals. Picking a highlight is an impossible task but the surprise was undoubtedly a beautiful version of Video Killed the Radio Star. The Buggles at Ceol Cholasa? That has to be a first!

Next up was the act I had been most looking forward to seeing and I am pleased to say, they didn’t disappoint! The Elephant Sessions were just amazing. Alasdair’s mandolin and Ewan’s fiddle are the base for the fantastic tunes but it is the guitar of Mark, the bass and synth of Seth and the drums of Greg that lift these boys to a whole new level. The standard of musicianship is incredible and the hall was absolutely jumping in a way not seen since Manran. You could say it is easy to get a standing ovation when everyone is already out of their seats but there is no doubt that the Elephant Sessions deserved it. What a show!

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You would have thought a lie down was needed after that but Greg was co-opted to join Murray on the accordion and Caitlin on the guitar to keep the dancers going as the Ceilidh got under way. A great selection of tunes was produced and the dancers did them proud as the night in the hall drew to a close.

The Festival Club seemed very busy to me but when the Ceilidh ended, the place was suddenly bursting at the seams. Another MacFarlane led session developed with the Butterworth jukebox also in full swing.  Just when it seemed a song session was not going to happen, Seumas was called over to sing and suddenly it was on. Singing Steal Away with Pedie and Jenn on guitars was probably the best thing I have ever done at the festival. Singing Sine Bhan with Niall and Seumas maybe wasn’t but it was damn good fun. Then, in the midst of the chaos, a moment of sheer beauty.  Iain on fiddle, accompanied by Pedie on guitar, played the slow air The Flower of the Quern. It was an amazing moment of absolute musical brilliance and one that I will never forget.

The final afternoon began with another lovely concert by Kathleen, Mike and Mhairi. The songs were all familiar and beautifully performed as always with the highlight being the ever-popular Reul Allain a’Chuain.

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The Karine Polwart Trio were up next for their second performance of the weekend and it was a belter. This was a totally different set from Saturday which included a lot of the old classics, including my personal favourite, Follow the Heron. The trio were immaculate as always and the 80’s got another run out with John Farnham’s You’re the Voice and a sumptuous version of Billy Bragg’s A New England. It was a gem of a set and probably cemented Karine’s spot as the top act of the festival. Her unaccompanied rendition of Freedom Come All Ye as an encore was the perfect end to a perfect set.

Then came the handover of power with Keir being appointed as the new Ceol Cholasa organiser. He made a nice speech and was joined by Jen to present a scrapbook, which had been signed by most of the festival goers with their memories of past years, to the outgoing organisers, Pedie and Keith. Although Jen’s speech meant that the boat was almost in, there was still time for The Elephant Sessions to give a last glorious set of magical tunes. After all these years, I still get the feeling of disbelief. Here I am, on Colonsay on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September and I am watching the Elephant Sessions in our village hall. Unbelievable!

It was then time for the grand finale and Pedie was joined by Liam & Caitlin for a rendition of Where Have all the Flowers Gone while Keith stood, looking rather happy, between Karine and Kathleen.

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Pedie then persuaded Iain back to the stage for a reprise of the Flower of the Quern and it was another great performance.

Karine then led the assembled artists in a hurriedly-penned song to the tune of Sunshine on Leith. It was a beautiful moment as we all sang “Sailing away from Scalasaig Bay, we will be with you: Here’s to the Chiefs, to Pedie & Keith….” It was another in a long line of magical moments. All that was left then was one last, MacFarlane-led tune set and that was the end of Ceol Cholasa 10.

It has been said many times over the week but it cannot be said enough. Pedie & Keith are due tremendous praise for what they have achieved. There are many helpers but without Keith’s original idea and Pedie’s drive to make it work, none of this would have happened.

I was trying to think what it is that makes Ceol Cholasa so special. The music is outstanding but that can be found at other festivals. The answer, I believe, is the people. People like John, Allison and Stephen joining in the open mic session, the Scousers and the Weegies with their infectious enthusiasm and laughter, Cathy & Martin with their incredible raffle ticket selling skills and the many other regular visitors. Then there are the locals. The staffs at the Pantry and Hotel who work tirelessly to keep us all fed and watered. Seumas and Niall delving into the memories to sing long-forgotten songs. Caitlin and Lickable Liam ready to break into a tune set at the drop of a hat. Jen, with her manic enthusiasm belying her advancing years. Along with the countless others that help to make this a great festival, it all adds up to a truly magical experience.

I will leave the last words to the one-man Ceilidh that is Iain MacFarlane. He said “it’s a special wee festival on a special wee Island.”

So say all of us and here’s to the next ten years.

 

Hughie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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