The Arisaig Americana Festival takes its first steps

arisaig-festival-1The West Highlands of Scotland may well be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and there’s been no shortage of music emanating from the area over the years, most of it in the traditional vein and reflecting the rich culture of this historical landscape. Now, an enterprising musician, Mairi Orr, wants to see the West Highlands, or, more specifically, the village of Arisaig,  on the romantically named “road to the Isles” to become a beacon for Americana music in Scotland complementing the sterling work carried out by the likes of Celtic Connections in Glasgow and Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. Orr (whose music we’ve discussed here) recently moved to Arisaig after living in Edinburgh and she’s decided to use her contacts to set up a festival which she hopes will grow into a popular attraction. Obviously that’s a long term goal and on the understanding that great oaks from little acorns grow this year’s inaugural Arisaig Festival is a small (but perfectly formed) affair. Intrigued as to why and how Ms. Orr set about this Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to her and we started off by asking her why she decided to have a go at setting up the festival in the first place.

I moved back here three years ago, not long after I released my album. It’s a lovely place but I found that I was kind of missing the music scene I’d been around in the big city. There are some amazing musicians up here but it tends to be mostly Scottish and traditional music and while the musicianship is second to none I felt that there was room for more Americana type music and importantly, that there is an audience for it, so I decided to see if I could kind of kick-start that, get it off the ground. I’ve always loved being up here.  Before we moved here permanently I visited a lot because I’ve got family here and I always thought it would be great to have some sort of event here. It’s a popular tourist destination, absolutely mobbed in the summer and there’s a great appetite for cultural events, music and such. When we got here I had my baby girl and that obviously took up my time but I started thinking seriously about setting up an event at the beginning of this year. In reality I’ve set up this first festival in a ridiculously short time but I’ve got a three year plan where I want to build the festival up, hold it over a couple of days and hopefully get some American musicians to come up and join in. So this year is really just to get it off the ground, put the word out and gauge the reaction.



So this year is pretty much dipping a toe in the water and seeing how it goes?

As I said it’s really just a launch pad for what I hope will be a bigger festival next year. We’re holding what is the main event on the Saturday night but before that we will be having musical workshops for guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, on the Saturday afternoon. There’s also going to be what I’m describing as a big pub session on the Sunday and I know there’s going to be a lot of musicians turning up for that, a good mix of people I hope.  A lot of local people have expressed their interest since we announced it and we’ve received some funding from a local trust fund and it’s great to get their support. There will be tourists around looking for something to attend and then folk I know in the music scene have also said they’re coming up, they’ll join in the session so that should be good fun.


Tell us who you’ve got lined up to play

Well I’m really pleased to have The Wynntown Marshals as our headliners as they are one of Scotland’s best known “Americana” bands. They’ll be playing here as an acoustic trio which suits the hall we’re holding the concert in although I’ve asked Iain Sloan to be sure to bring his pedal steel with him. We also have The Jellyman’s Daughter, an excellent duo who have just released their second album and for this they’re bringing some friends with them to add bass and banjo on stage so that should sound great. Then there’s The Daddy Naggins who will be rounding off Saturday night with some good old foot stomping bluegrass. They’ll also be around earlier in the day as they are going to be helping out on the afternoon workshops.

You’ve missed out an act, the Crow County Pickers, which, after some extensive research, turns out to be yourself and some chums!

OK, that’s me with David Currie, Craig McKinney and Alan Finn. David is a fantastic Dobro player who did several shows with me when I was out playing my album. We hadn’t played for sometime after I had my daughter but we got back together a little while ago and started working on this and Craig is bringing along his mandolin while we’ve got Alan on bass

It seem to me that aside from the concert you’re trying to inject an awareness of roots type music, folk, Americana and such in a place that’s probably more used to trad fiddle sessions and pipers galore.

Well there’s a lot of music students up here who are learning trad music along with a lot of “closet” players out there who would probably love to have a go on the banjo or mandolin. We’re just trying to expand the idea of folk music to encompass more than trad so the workshops are aimed at them. One of things I like about Americana music is that it’s really open and friendly and inclusive, I’m hoping that if you play guitar or banjo or mandolin or anything really you can come along and join in. The workshops will be free as will the session on Sunday, bring an instrument or just come along to hear the music. The Sunday session is being held in a great bar where they’re really encouraging to musicians and I’m getting feedback that a lot of folk will be coming to that.

It is a small festival, we don’t have a great capacity in terms of the venues but I really want to grow it over a couple of days and bring artists up here who probably don’t come to this part of the world that often. Really we just want this year to put us on the map, there are musicians who come to the West Highlands but not often enough. I’ve been talking to some other promoters to see if can start to join the dots as it were for American acts coming over here so that they don’t just play the cities, to see if we can make it attractive enough for them to play a bit further afield.

Which bring us to my final question. A lot of folk will thing that Arisaig is out in the sticks, cut off from the mainstream as it were. If we were to go would we have to hike there or get a helicopter?

Although we look as if we’re out in the wilds there are good transport links. There’s a steam train that comes from Fort William, it’s actually the one you see in the Harry Potter films which goes over the Glenfinnan viaduct. That’s the tourist way of getting here but you can get the train from Glasgow while buses run from Glasgow and Inverness. I think most people will drive and we’re only about three to four hours away from most cities in Scotland. It is a bit of an effort to get here but it’s such a beautiful part of the world it’s well worth the effort. We’ve already got a successful trad festival here, Feis Na Mara, which is held in October and it always sells out and that’s in the off season so there’s no reason not to come.

The Arisaig  Americana Festival takes place on 23-24 June. Their website is here and tickets are available here.

And here’s some video of Mairi in action. She’s sure to give The Marshals’ a run for their money.




Mairi Orr. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Sunday 28th June 2015

Morar raised, Edinburgh based Mairi Orr released her debut album this week and she was fortunate enough to have two launch parties celebrating this achievement. She played Edinburgh last weekend and tonight it was Glasgow’s turn. Reviewing the album, Jenny Does Burn Blabber’n’Smoke mentioned that Orr had gathered together a “dream band” whose playing, along with her fine voice and writing skills raised the album well above the bar. For the launch shows she was able to retain the majority of this gifted bunch with Steven Polwart on guitar, Dave Currie, Dobro and guitar, Nico Bruce double bass and Mattie Foulds on percussion while Danny Hart’s fiddle parts were handed over to a fellow Morar musician, Eilidh Shaw. From the off it was clear that the all acoustic ensemble were something special, the opening song, The Drover delivered with a haunting sense of mystery with Polwart’s guitar and Currie’s Dobro slyly weaving together over cymbal washes and delicate mallet playing from Foulds. As the song slowly unfolded they were spellbinding, memories of Fairport Convention, The Pentangle and other stalwarts from the heyday of folk rock were summoned up. The song itself is a tremendous invocation of ancient days but the playing was, simply put, gobsmackingly brilliant, sending shivers up the spine.

They played all of the songs from the album although the running order was rejigged. It was a hard task to follow the opening number but the brisk fiddle led country romp of Don’t You Wed Another Man, Maggie was up to the job allowing Eilidh Shaw to shine and featuring some fine counterpoint singing. The title song swayed exotically and hearing it live one felt that it was reminiscent of the late Kirsty MacColl’s ventures into Latin American music. In fact hearing the album fleshed out live offered insights into some of the songs that were not immediately apparent from the record. I’m Not A Gambling Man revealed its debts to Hank Williams and Western swing while Just A Fallow Year seemed to have more of Richard Thompson’s bleakness than was apparent on the album.

Orr was engaging as she introduced several of the songs explaining their origins. She spoke about growing up in Morar on Silver Sands, family memories on The Piper of Peanmeanach and Summer On The Clyde and of her mother’s search for a cluster of Ragged Robin flowers. The delicacy of the band playing amplified the sense of nostalgia (and sometimes, regret) embodied in these songs although there was also some welcome bawdiness on the rousing The Drinker’s Wife. However they kept the best to the last with an astounding version of Letting It Go, a song of regret that on the album again harks back to Richard Thompson like melancholy. Here the band slowly built to a climax with the instruments meshing together anchored by some muscular bass playing from Bruce as the fiddle skirled and Dobro snaked away to create a devilish din with Orr raising her voice over the maelstrom. A cracking performance it bookended the show perfectly. There was time for an encore and they ran through a grand version of Dirk Powell’s Moonshiner with Dobro and fiddle battling away and a definite Celtic air to the delivery.


Mairi Orr. Jenny Does Burn

Blabber’n’Smoke first encountered Scots singer and songwriter Mairi Orr back in 2012 when she appeared at Celtic Connections. She sang songs from her debut release, the five song EP The Gathering Crows, an impressive disc which we reviewed here. Three years on and Orr has her full length debut released this week with an album launch gig at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe this Sunday, 28th June. The album, Jenny Does Burn, is self-released after a successful Kickstarter campaign and additional funding from Creative Scotland.

We likened Orr to several singers when reviewing The Gathering Crows including Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, Jacqui McShee and Shelagh McDonald. On Jenny Does Burn Orr has found her own voice and the most likely comparisons are to the likes of Eddi Reader, Karine Polwart, Siobhan Miller, Julie Fowlis and Heidi Talbot. Not that Orr sounds like any of these but she joins their ranks as a strong singer/songwriter with an acute sense of modern folk influenced music. Anyone who listens to these singers will see that there are names which crop up time and time again as the cream of Scotland’s acoustic music scene are becoming a most incestuous bunch (musically speaking). In keeping with this Orr has been able to gather together a dream outfit who combine to give the album a wonderful lift and lilt with some beautiful playing. Be it a glowering folk ballad or a banjo led country stomp the band are superb; featuring Steven Polwart: guitars, mandolin, vocals, Mattie Foulds: drums, percussion (and production duties), Nico Bruce: double bass, Fraser Fifield: low whistle, Dave Currie: dobro, Danny Hart: fiddle, bluegrass banjo, mandolin and Mark Woods: clawhammer banjo they curl and weave and pluck with a warm and engaging empathy for Orr’s songs.

As for the songs, Orr writes about family memories and delves into Scottish history with ease. The title song commemorates Janet (Jenny) Horne, the last woman to be burned for practising witchcraft in Scotland. Surprisingly Orr opts not for a traditional folk song style here but instead offers a sly, almost bluesy tango as she sings about the fate of Jenny and the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance. In fact with the exception of the opening song, The Drover, a brooding encounter between a drover and a reiver (herdsman and bandit) with sinister Dobro sneaking throughout an atmospheric arrangement Orr is defiantly contemporary. The up tempo fiddle and banjo of Don’t You Wed Another Man Maggie and Drinker’s Wife relate to current bluegrass music allowing the players to cut loose on their respective instruments as Orr crosses the Transatlantic gap with ease. There are several introspective songs that allow the band to shine gently. Letting Me Go is a portrait of a failed relationship that recalls the work of Richard Thompson while Just A Fallow Year is a melancholic yearning song about childlessness that floats on a wonderful Dobro and guitar fuelled dreamland. Orr tops these with the light-footed lilting ballad that is The Promise with the band breezing though a filigreed blend of guitar and Dobro belying the heartache in the lyrics.

Family and home account for several of the songs. On The Shore is a solid folk rock song that commemorates Orr’s home in Morar as she recalls the silver sands. The Piper Of Peanmeaneach salutes an ancestor who fought in the Boer war and was inspired by the discovery of an old photograph with Fraser Fifield’s whistle adding a wistful air. Summer On The Clyde (1914) is a fine close to the album as Orr sings about the innocence of a youthful crew messing about on the Clyde before enduring the agonies of the Great War. Again she captures the moment perfectly with a perfectly nuanced sense of nostalgia and regret.

As we said the album is out this week. Mairi played an East coast launch party in Edinburgh last weekend and this Sunday she brings her band to The Glad Cafe to introduce Glasgow to this very fine album.

Mairi Orr. The Gathering Crows.

In the dying days of Celtic Connections we heard that good friends of Blabber’n’Smoke, Old Dollar Bill were venturing west to support Mairi Orr at an Open Stage gig. The Open stage is a free daily show featuring several artists who have the opportunity to play to a very appreciative audience. It’s one of Celtic Connections’ finer aspects and was inspired by the late and great Danny Kyle.
Anyway, Mairi, originally from Morar in the west Highlands but now living in Edinburgh, appeared with her “borrowed band,” and delivered a fine set featuring songs from her sparkling debut disc, The Gathering Crows that went down a treat. Intrigued we sought a copy and for the past two weeks have been very impressed.
The Gathering Crows is a five song collection with all titles written by Orr and featuring support from Stephen Clark and Ed Henry of Old Dollar Bill among others. It positively bursts at the seams with a vibrant quality and the maturity of the writing and playing is unexpected from someone just stepping onto the stage.
Orr’s voice has a magnificent presence. Strong and melodic she could fit well into that pantheon that includes Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, Jacqui McShee and in particular the enigma that is Shelagh McDonald. The latter is particularly recalled on two songs here, the title song and the opening For Gold. Both songs are baleful tales, chilling in their delivery with some superb backing, the Dobro in For Gold snakes menacingly throughout while on The gathering Crows the guitar, mandolin, bass and percussion thrash together in a propulsive audio equivalent of a murder of crows. A third song, Will You is delivered very much in a folk style that does recall early Denny and it features some exquisite fiddle by Amy Geddes. The two remaining songs display a more American influence. Sweet One has an urgency that owes a debt to bluegrass while Two Different States of Mind features just Orr and banjo from Mark Woods on a tantalising murder ballad.
A great debut and a mention must be made of the excellent supportive players, Stephen Clark, Ed Henry, Hugh Kelly, Mark Woods and Amy Geddes who all add a very authentic and well played backdrop to Ms. Orr’s very talented delivery.


For Gold