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Pete Irvine – Burns&Beyond Culture Trail

Pete Irvine is full of surprises. This has long been the case, ever since his early days putting on gigs with Regular Music, the promotion company he co-founded with Barry Wright to capitalise on a new wave of musical activity in Edinburgh and elsewhere during the late 1970s. It was the same when, as head of Unique Events, he and the company began Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, transforming the capital’s end of the year celebrations into an international spectacle.

Irvine may be flying solo these days since he departed Unique, now led by director Alan Thomson, but he’s no less interested in events which capture the creative essence of Edinburgh. So it goes with his contributions to Culture Trail, the one-night only city centre wide compendium of artistic activity that forms Unique’s newly constituted Burns&Beyond festival.

As the name suggests, Burns&Beyond is a celebration of Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns, which takes place over six days and nights, and which aims to showcase some of Scotland’s contemporary artistic life in the run up to and beyond Burns Night. So while more familiar fare such as a Burns Supper, a ceilidh and whisky tastings will form part of Burns&Beyond, the Culture Trail is serving up a much broader take on Burns’ legacy than what traditionalists might expect.

This is done across eight Old and New Town venues, which ticket holders can circulate around over the Culture Trail’s four-hour duration after being given a starting location and an accompanying map to guide them around. Each venue will be curated by an artist or organisation, who will host a variety of performers from various artforms.

While venues, curators and many of the artists taking part have been announced, what audience members get when they turn up at each venue will be a surprise. Audiences are free to stay as long or as little as they like at each venue, though it is hoped that in the spirit of the occasion they will move between spaces to get a full flavour of the event.

“A lot of the artists taking part in the Culture Trail are mainly musical,” says Irvine, “but they won’t just be doing an ordinary gig. The way we’re doing it, and the way each space is designed, we’re going to be creating a whole environment for each stage that is something really atmospheric.”

Irvine is curating three spaces. These are Greyfriars’ Kirk, Assembly Roxy and St Giles’ Cathedral, where Burns&Beyond’s flagship event, Museum of the Moon, will already be installed for the duration of the festival. Other venues include Edinburgh University’s New College Quad, the Freemason’s Hall on George Street and Merchant’s Hall on Frederick Street. The Rose Street Theatre on Rose Street and The Caves, just off the Cowgate, will also host events.

Curators include those behind Edinburgh’s premiere spoken-word night, Neu! Reekie!, Edinburgh’s long-standing comedy promoters The Gilded Balloon and Eigg-based record label Lost Map, run by Johnny Lynch, aka The Pictish Trail. Two members of Lau, Martin Green and Aidan O’Rourke, will oversee separate stages. Between them they will re-create an Enlightenment era hostelry, here presented as Lucky Middlemass’s Tavern, while Green will look after an event called Disarming Reverberations.

With the full line-up announced yesterday, artists taking part include Ricky Ross, Alasdair Roberts, comedians Gary Meikle and Susan Riddell, and BBC6Music favourite Callum Easter. Five-piece brass ensemble Alba Brass will also take part, while an all-female line-up of electronic acts, including Sofay, Ribeka and Dunbar rap trio The Honey Farm, will play a venue dubbed The Red Rose Club. Where any of these will be remains to be seen, though ticket-buyers may wish to entertain themselves by attempting to second-guess how artists and venues are paired up.  

At first glance, all this might appear to resemble Scot:Lands, the New Year’s Day multiple stage event which Irvine engineered and curated over the last three years’ that Unique ran Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. Irvine says otherwise, and is keen to point out the differences between the two events.

“The fact that The Culture Trail takes place in Edinburgh across different venues suggests the two are connected, but they’re not,” he says. “Scot:Lands was very specific to New Year’s Day, it happened in the daytime, it was free, and it happened over a shorter period of time. The Culture Trail is a paid ticketed event that takes place at night over a longer period of time. That’s not taking away from Scot:Lands, which had never been done before, and which proved to be very popular, and which might be repeated at some point, but The Culture Trail is something different.”

What Burns&Beyond’s Culture Trail and Scot:Lands do have in common is the sleight-of-hand used in introducing what might be considered by some to be more leftfield artforms into a large-scale civic event. This is something Irvine did previously with Burns An A’ That, the Alloway-based festival which in its early days under Unique’s stewardship brought the likes of site-specific theatre company Grid Iron and environmental interventionists NVA to create new work. While Irvine and Unique are no longer involved, after eighteen years Burns An’ A’ That remains an annual event.

Arriving at a time when Edinburgh’s local authority has come under fire from some quarters in terms of focusing too much on tourism at the expense of local needs, whether Burns&Beyond becomes a similarly regular addition to the city’s cultural calendar remains to be seen.

“I understand the delicacy of that,” says Irvine, “and I can understand why some people might say the things they do, but by the middle of January, Hogmanay’s been and gone, and people want to do things, so let’s see how people respond.”

This has always been Irvine’s approach.

“Everything I’ve always done,” he says, “it’s always come from an idea and a concept. Whatever the event was, I’ve always looked at what it would be like, from the ticketing and lighting to what the artists are, I would do all of that. Part of the reason I’m only doing three of the works is that I didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t my idea to do Burns&Beyond and The Culture Trail, but I think it’s a really significant event, and I think the other things that are on, whether that’s what The Pictish Trail and Lost Map or doing, or what the Gilded Balloon are doing, look really good as well.”

Irvine is clearly enjoying focusing on his three stages for Burns&Beyond’s Culture Trail. Not having responsibility for everything has also freed him up to look outwards towards other possibilities for events at home and abroad.

“I’m a collaborator,” he says. “I always want to do new things. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this project, and I really hope it works, because there’s always something new to be done.”

Burns&Beyond Culture Trail, various venues, Edinburgh, January 26, 6.30-10.45pm. Burns&Beyond runs in Edinburgh from January 22-27.

The Herald, January 15th 2019


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