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Six Go Mad in Reykjavik - Burns Night in Iceland 2013

In a rehearsal room in the Icelandic Academy of Arts, something is stirring. A posse of six Scottish musicians has just arrived to join forces with a similar number of their Icelandic contemporaries to prepare for The Great Scottish Icelandic Concert, a musical Burns Night celebration taking place in the bar of the uber-hip Kex hostel on the edge of Reykjavik.  A couple of Canadians have just arrived to prepare for their scheduled performances the next night, and they too will become part of one of the richest under-the-radar international exchanges that could only happen in Iceland.

These aren’t just any musicians either. From Scotland, maverick pianist and composer Bill Wells is here with his National Jazz Trio of Scotland, consisting of vocalists Lorna Gilfedder, Kate Sugden and Aby Vulliamy, the latter of whom doubles up on viola. Between them, the trio have a multitude of connections with some of Scotland’s more exploratory left-field combos.
Also in attendance is Alasdair Roberts, who over the last decade has reinvented the Scots folk tradition to make it sound both ancient and thrillingly contemporary in much the same way Nick Cave has done with the blues. Roberts’ just released album, A Wonder Working Stone, has been hailed as one of the first major recorded delights of the year. Finally, and tirelessly, maverick piper Barnaby Brown lends a classically trained gravitas to proceedings.

As the band file in with their host, Icelandic singer-songwriter and composer Benni Hemm Hemm, they’re unexpectedly greeted by an electric guitarist, bass player, two keyboardists and a trumpeter. Under Hemm Hemm’s loose direction and with Roberts on lead vocals, this newly formed big band thunder their way through Scots traditional song, the Blantyre Explosion and make Burns’ The Twa Corbies sound like Patti Smith’s Because The Night.
Brown takes charge of The Fairy Flag, Circassian Cirle and the Canadian Barn Dance, adding pipes and his own mouth music to a vigorous stomp-along. The band then rehearses two of Hemm Hemm’s songs, which sound even bigger. Canadian singers Clinton St John and Laura Leif eventually join in on backing vocals, making the band a 14-piece.

Roberts played a solo set the night before in Kex’s Gym and Tonic room, a kind of Viking banqueting hall decorated with punch-bags, vaulting horses and Mexican wrestling posters. Wells and the NJToS will do similar tonight. Gym and Tonic will also be the venue for a more traditional Burns Supper hosted by the Icelandic Edinburgh Society. Roberts, Wells and Vuliamy double up as the ceilidh band, while Brown leads the dancing.
As the rehearsals have already hinted at, however, it is the massed Scottish Icelandic collaboration in the bar that proves to be an unmissable, once in a lifetime spectacular.

The brains behind all this is Hemm Hemm, who was approached by Kex’s unlikely managerial cartel of former international football stars after hearing how Hemm Hemm had forged links with Scotland’s musical community after living in Edinburgh for two years. With a quiet January 2012 to look forward to in the newly opened establishment, a Scots member of Kex staff suggested a Burns night, and the Kex Scottish Festival Week was burn, its first year featuring Withered Hand and Wounded Knee in what was a comparatively small affair.
Earlier that day, Brown, Hemm Hemm and Roberts had hooked up with Icelandic novelist, Andri Snaer Magnason, at Toppstodia (Top Station), a former power station now used as offices and studios by an arts collective Magnason is part of. The interior of Toppstodia hasn’t been touched, and it’s retro knobs and dials and racing green paint-job resembles the sort of space-age sound-stage where the denouement of a James Bond movie might take place.

After comparing notes with Magnason on the common ground between ancient Scottish and Icelandic cultures, Brown plays the Sardinian triple pipe, then the bag-pipes, in the space, adapting to its acoustic as he marches around the iron floor. Later, Brown visits Icelandic composer, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, who recites an ancient Icelandic epic poem. Brown returns dressed in full Highland regalia just as the band have finished a gloriously bombastic Blantyre Explosion, which sounds like Test Department as scored by Ennio Morricone.
There are at least three musicians on Kex’s tiny stage who weren’t at rehearsals earlier. The two drummers and flugel horn player are part of Hemm Hemm’s regular ensemble, and add a martial thunder to the other songs as well, despite never having heard them before. An analog synth adds apposite science-fiction textures to the roaring Scots outings, and by the closing performance of Hemm Hemm’s song, Retaliate, it’s clear something very special has just happened.

Not everyone got it, however. Given the wilfully misleading name Wells has gifted his band, more than one member of the audience was left wondering what happened to the jazz band, while a refreshed Danish sailor asked whether they were likely to play any Runrig numbers. While Kex’s mighty Scottish Icelandic alliance wasn’t forthcoming, if he’d stuck around for the Edinburgh Society Burns Supper the next night, the sound of Brown, Roberts, Vuliamy and Wells leading a mass sing-along of Loch Lomond might just have made his night.

The Herald, January 29th 2013



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