As Shooglenifty prepared to take the stage for their concert to close the first ever Hebridean Celtic Festival there was just one thing missing; the audience.
The globetrotting ‘acid croft’ band had travelled to Stornoway to take part in the inaugural HebCelt in 1996 but the initial signs were not encouraging.
“We played in the town hall - this was long before the big tent - and the venue seemed strangely deserted when the time came to play”, said James Mackintosh, the band’s drummer. “But the caretaker assured us that as soon as we started the crowd would arrive, as they were nearby … in the pub.
“Sure enough, by the end of the first number, the hall was packed; a messenger had sent the word.”
This summer, as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations, Shooglenifty are back in Stornoway for the 20th HebCelt. Both have changed significantly in the intervening years, with the festival now an internationally-renowned, multi award-winning event that attracts an audience 15 times the size of the 1,000 who turned out for that first event.
Shooglenifty’s line-up has altered and now features Quee Macarthur on bass, Malcolm Crosbie on guitar, Garry Finlayson on banjo, Ewan MacPherson on mandolin, Angus Grant on fiddle as well as James.The Edinburgh-based band will be one of the main acts on HebCelt’s Island Stage during the four-day festival from 15-18 July when they will be showcasing their new album ‘The Untied Knot’, due out on 6 July. In a departure from previous instrumental work, the album - released this month - features singer Kaela Rowan.
“We’re really pleased with the album and we've some really special gigs lined up this summer”, said James. “Kaela has often guested with us on special occasions, and, after a really excellent Glastonbury gig, we invited her to contribute to the new album.
“She is a phenomenal singer and has a great presence, and always sings with passion and soul. After six instrumental albums we thought it would be a great way to celebrate our seventh by incorporating her voice. She's fitting in beautifully and has just the right attitude.”
After a quarter of a century on the road, what’s the band’s secret of long life? “Not knowing what might be just around the corner, hard work, a certain amount of luck, and patience”, said James.
“When a band’s line-up changes, the different personalities put their imprints on the sound. Our original line up with Iain (Macleod) and Conrad (Ivitsky) was really unique and exciting, but couldn't last.
“Luke Plumb was inspired and energetic and his enthusiasm was contagious, and now we have Ewan (MacPherson) and Kaela (Rowan) aboard there's a distinctly new dynamic, which is a new chapter for the band.”
As they mark their own milestone, why do the band think HebCelt has experienced similar longevity and what makes it attractive for visiting artists?
“A unique location for one and the consistently imaginative programming for another. Also, of course, the audiences, who are really appreciative and enthusiastic.
“Because of the effort it takes bands to get there, it’s always appreciated by the festival crowd. Its relative ‘remoteness’ also makes it special.
And what about the next 25 years? “It'd be great to visit some parts of the world we've never been to: Africa and South America spring to mind, but who knows? We live in exciting times, and, as I said before, you never know what's just around the corner.”
This year’s HebCelt, which runs from 15-18 July, will also feature acts including Idlewild, Afro Celt Sound System, Treacherous Orchestra, the Karen Matheson Band, Chastity Brown, Le Vent du Nord, Raghu Dixit and Salsa Celtica.
Tickets for all events during the festival can be bought at www.hebceltfest.com/booking
Twitter – @HebCelt
Facebook – www.facebook.com/HebCelt
2014 review on youtube - https://youtu.be/x8o87NBGp-c