Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009: Music

FC Ukelele on stage at the Guilford Arms, Edinburgh

FC Ukelele on stage at the Guilford Arms, Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is primarily known for its comedy and theatre, but the city is also host to a load of fine music throughout the month of August and, I’m sure, the rest of the year. My previous visits to the city have mostly focused on the comedy, but this time my friend, John, and I found ourselves attending more music gigs than before. Our first port of call was a folk pub called the Royal Oak, situated near the Royal Mile. Two years ago, we decided to check out the place as we had heard good things about it. We decided to pop in for a quiet pint a few hours before midnight and were quite surprised to find ourselves still there sometime around four or five in the morning. We were having such good craic listening to great music and chatting to some interesting characters that we didn’t notice the time creeping up on us. We met a guy from Northern Ireland who spoke passionately and repetitively about his political views; we spoke at length to a supporter of Sunderland AFC who went by the name of Geordie; and towards the end of the night we met a nice Scotsman who was enjoying his first week of freedom since being released from prison. Good times

The pub itself is situated in the city and is quite small. Throughout the night, musicians sit in the corner singing and playing as half the pub listen and sing along while the other half chat loudly to each other, completely oblivious to the fine music around them. On this occasion we decided to take it easy and went home at half three. We were lucky enough to hear some great music yet again. We got to see a young English fiddle play and singer who looked like Rick Danko from The Band and played and sang just as well. At one point a guy in a kilt appeared and accompanied himself on piano to, well, Piano Man by Billy Joel. I jokingly asked if he knew how to play Crocodile Rock. He did. We also got to hear loads of songs from a local musician named Rossco Galloway and later from his brother as well. Rosco sang his own songs and I was quite impressed by the lyrics and his delivery. I got chatting to him later and he told me that he also works in a bar in town. The quality of his songs and performance suggest that it may not be too long before he’s able to give up the day job. Here is one of his songs:

She Takes My Hand On Dry Land – Rossco Galloway

The next night we went to see Women in Harmony at the Queen’s Hall. The harmonious women in question are three Scottish folk singers and musicians: Annie Grace, Corrina Hewat and Karine Polwart. Each of them performs solo, but have played a few gigs together and have not decided on a group name yet. They’re called Grace, Hewat and Polwart on their MySpace page, but this makes them sound like a firm of accountants. I’d already seen Karine Polwart at the Folk by the Oak festival in July and I was looking forward to seeing her with the other two girlies. The Queen’s Hall is a fine venue with great acoustics and we had also been here two years ago to see Barb Jungr put on a whole show devoted to the music of Bob Dylan. The three ladies also included a Dylan song along with a set of traditional songs and their versions of more contemporary tunes. I would have preferred if they had played less lullabies as it was quite warm in there and I was a bit shagged out from walking the streets all day. They also played a load of songs by Robbie Burns and these didn’t do a lot for me. Nevertheless, the rest of the show was brilliant and their banter in between songs was quite amusing, particularly from Annie Grace. At one stage they did a medley of about a half dozen songs based on the theme of walking. It was a clever idea and they pulled it off with aplomb. They also did a medley of songs about children and one of these was a moving version of Mothers of the Disappeared by some band from Ireland whose name I didn’t catch. I coudn’t find any songs by the trio, but here’s a similar version of that song:

Mothers of the Disappeared (U2 cover) – Childsplay

An hour later we found ourselves at the Caledonian Folk and Blues festival at another packed pub called the Guildford Arms. Up on the raised stage were a local duo named Bedford Falls who played a fantastic set of covers that was as notable for the excellent quality of the singing and guitar-playing as for the interesting selection of songs that they chose to perform. Rather than playing the usual suspects they played a range of lesser-known tracks from such famous acts as The Beatles and Neil Young to some lesser-known ones from groups that I had never heard covered before. Some of the highlights included their unique takes on Love’s Alone Again Or, Prefab Sprout’s When Love Breaks Down and a rousing rendition of Nick Lowe’s What’s So Funny About Peace Love & Understanding? that finished their set on a high note. The two lads complemented each other quite well as one was more proficient at singing and the other was more skilled on the guitar. They also covered the songs in their own style and avoided slavishly copying the originals, a mistake that many covers bands constantly make. They finished up just after eleven which gave us plenty of time to make our next gig at midnight. Before I tell you about that here’s an acoustic version of When Love Breaks Down by its composer:

When Love Breaks Down (live acoustic) – Paddy McAloon

A short walk around the streets of Edinburgh set us up nicely for Edwyn Collins‘ midnight gig at the Assembly Hall. Edwyn is native of Edinburgh and was lead singer of Orange Juice, one of my favourite Scottish bands. He turned 50 the day after this gig, so a belated happy birthday to you, sir. Edwyn has been going it alone since 1985 and last year he released his sixth solo album, Home Again. He’s extremely lucky to be still making music. Four years ago he suffered not one, but two, brain haemorrhages. Fortunately, the subsequent surgery proved successful and he has underwent a process of rehabilitation since. This has affected his movement on the right side of his body and is noticeable in his speech and movement. It also means that he cannot play the guitar. In addition, he had to learn his songs all over again and used a lecturn as he kept an eye on the lyrics during the gig. However, it has not affected his singing voice as he played for over an hour to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. His set ranged from Orange Juice favourites to songs from his solo albums. He was accompanied on stage by three fine guitarists and a percussionist as well as guest appearances from Teenage Fanclub‘s Norman Blake and the lead singer from the Cribs. Edwyn received great support from the young fellas behind him and they gave us lovely versions of Blue Boy and Rip It Up. Two of my highlights of the night came from his 1994 solo album, Gorgeous George. The lyrics of Low Expectations and, in particular, Make Me Feel Again took on new meaning in light of recent events. It must have been an emotional occasion for Edwyn and for many of the audience and this was certainly the case for the lady sitting beside me. Her companion had to console her throughout the gig as she wept openly during many of the songs. Fortunately, I’m a tough bastard and I only wept once. One of the many CDs that I picked up the following day was Edwyn’s album from last year. Here is the title track:

Home Again – Edwyn Collins

The next night we went to see the North American singer and pianist, Amanda Palmer at the HMV Picture House. Palmer has been half of the duo, the Dresden Dolls, along with Brian Viglione throughout this decade. Last year, she released a solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, which included the singles Oasis and Leeds United. I must admit that these were the only two songs of hers that I knew about before the gig. I went out of curiosity and because an Austrian friend of mine has often enthused about her songs and live performances. Well, you weren’t wrong, Stefan. She was fuckin’ brilliant. She played for two hours and wanted to play for longer, but the venue’s curfew was 11.00pm. For most of the gig she sat alone at her keyboard and treated us to a lively and thought-provoking set. Her melodic songs feature some great lyrics and she uses the piano-keyboard very well to accompany her singing

Some of the highlights included the songs I knew (Oasis and Leeds United) and I Google You, a modern-day torch song. It became quite obvious as the gig progressed that cabaret and the music of Bertholt Brecht has been an inspiration on her musical style while classic songwriters such as the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter have had a strong influence on her lyrics and the structure of her songs. However, I have a feeling that that wasn’t the reason why the majority of her (mostly young) audience was there. She seems to attract a fanbase that likes to dress in black, wearing flowing skirts, and lots of make-up. You should have seen what the women were wearing! Nevertheless, it was an intriguing event and it’s certainly made me want to check out more of her music. I have to admit that both John and I agreed that the sound could have been better and it was hard to make out the lyrics during the first hour. Still, this was made up for by her amazing performance and easy way with the crowd. The gig also featured the most unusual support act that I’ve ever seen. Zen Zen Zo is an Australian theatrical company and six of them treated us to a short performance that combined elements of dance and mime. Unlike the audience, the ladies and gentlemen from the troupe that we saw on stage had an approach to clothing that could only be described as minimalistic. In fact, you could say that they simply let it all hang out. John pointed out to me that they were the only support act he’s ever seen that had little support themselves. Here’s a live version of another musical highlight from Ms Palmer’s set:

Coin-Operated Boy (live) – The Dresden Dolls

Finally, on the Sunday we returned to the Guilford Arms to check out the wonderfully monikered FC Ukulele (pictured above). I’m a big fan of the ukulele and I actually own one myself even hough it’s been a while since I picked it up. Here’s what FC Ukulele have to say about themselves on their MySpace page: “Our repertoire consists of old favourites and contemporary classics arranged for our unique 5 piece set up of Baritone, Tenor and Solid Electric Ukuleles, close vocal harmonies, blues harmonica and drums”. As you can see from the photo their sound also includes an electric lead ukulele. They used this on a storming version of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing and, to be frank, it sounded fantastic. And so did the rest of the show. The band takes turns singing lead and they also harmonise to great effect. Their harmonies were particularly evident during their fine take on their version of The Weight by the Band. Other highlights included their interpretations of Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty) and Runaway (Del Shannon). Like all the other acts I’ve mentioned on this post FC Ukulele combined excellent musicianship with an interesting and varied selection of songs along with a nice sense of humour that brought a smile to the crowd and had them singing along with the group. I don’t have any tunes by the band, but here’s the title track of an album that I picked up for a couple of quid in an Oxfam shop during my visit. The song seems to address the resurgence in the instrument’s popularity although its spelling of the word is not so conventional:

A Million Ukeleles – MJ Hibbert

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One thought on “Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009: Music

  1. So glad you caught Edwyn Collins’ gig. I’ve seen him play twice here in Manchester in the last 18 months and was also lucky enough to talk to his wife Grace last time.
    As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of our musical legends. You wouldn’t wish his problems on anybody but for him still to be where he is today – that’s amazing.

    The musical world would be a poorer place without people like him in it.

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