I’m sitting in Matchmakers. The seats are covered in white, it’s bustling and people cluster around tables, rising occasionally to negotiate the tricky terrain up to the bar and back. My view is partially blocked by a wooden partition so I have to lean forward slightly to gain the fullest view of the stage yet to be filled.
Trumpets, saxophones, cornets, tuba, French horn, guitar and two basses make their way up and four voices position themselves stage left.
This was the Orkney Schools Big Band’s debut performance. They were to provide an evening of entertainment with support from a newly formed jazz trio.
With a quick introduction given through a slightly uncooperative microphone, they set off with the classic Birdland. This tune had a strong bassline and rhythm section to back some sleazy saxophone riffs. Gemma Harcus then performed Michael Buble’s Haven’t Met You Yet; a charming, yet still musically interesting number which set the standard high for the following vocal pieces. We then heard Anna Taylor sing the Latin classic Sway, another highly confident performance. However, it was a shame that there was only a limited array of percussion, which could have helped to set the scene even more.
Next we heard a couple of tunes from the trio, with David Flanagan displaying his highly accomplished bass skills and musicianship in some great improvisational jazz.
After a short break, so the brass players could “save their faces”, we were treated to A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square as sung by Sandy Carmichael; a wonderful song in which he demonstrated impressive vocal range and dynamics. Cameron Dowel (fresh from local fame in the role of the romantic lead, Marius in Kirkwall Amatuer Operatic Society’s Les Miserables) then took his turn to sing a Frank Sinatra classic, Come Fly with Me. Dowel is a true showman with a silky smooth, luxurious voice that puts the audience at ease while still brimming with expression. He is clearly influenced by the great crooners of that era and brought personality to the piece, signing off with a characterful spoken line.
The four singers then came together for a Big Band take on The Beatles’ Twist and Shout, which was packed with solos from every corner, and another unique interpretation of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing.
Overall, the night was hugely enjoyable. Despite some repertoire problems and occasional organisational hiccups, the band was talented and able to cope with the demands and challenges that arose from a gig of this kind. Personally, I feel as if the singers could have been utilised more, especially when popular songs were done as instrumentals such as Born To Be Wild and RESPECT. Much of the time the singers were simply waiting off to the side, which was a shame considering their quality.
Following the show, I was quickly ferried through to Stromness, and introduced to, no, perhaps confronted with, George the Poet (spoken word artist) on the way there. Merry-making occurred, I spied a ravaged birthday cake, party rings were consumed, I sang Wham loudly. I returned home.
On Saturday I found myself volunteering at the Youth Divisional Final of the Drama Festival. As part of a team of four I sold raffles and ice cream, opened and closed doors and gave out prizes. In exchange I got to watch the four finalist group’s plays.
First was a play called Flushed and was set in the ladies of a closing nightclub. The production was cleverly staged; the floor was littered with paper towels, the dingy aesthetic so effectively portrayed you could almost smell it. The three actresses were virtually unseen for the first five minutes or so, with the exception of their high-heeled feet, concealed within cubicles. This made it technically challenging with the players having to project their voices even more loudly than usual. There were also some tricky set pieces involving a toilet roll supply crisis, which required the cast to launch the roll from cubicle to cubicle, coordinating their unsynchronised efforts for comedic effect. The pace did drag at times and the situation was not quite as hilarious as it could have been with repetitious gags and the naff use of the word “sugar” to replace any potential expletives, verbs included.
In contrast, the following play was abundant with colourful language. However, this did not detract and gave the dialogue a more realistic feel. This was the shortest of the plays, was impressively written by the cast themselves and came with an important message – that it is not right to hide who you are, even if it does result in the short term backlash of a prejudiced minority. The story followed a boy’s journey from coming out to his female best friend, to being accepted by those around him for who he was, as school gossip moved on to new developments. The play had some particularly strong characters, especially our protagonist’s funny best friend and the oblivious chatterbox mother. It also featured some intelligent staging, particularly the use of sound effects in the typing and texting scenes and the lighting in the horrific dream sequence.
Bellybuttons, a play about the decaying innocence of late primary school, generated the most laughs of the night. A new boy from “England” boasts about his gangster past and prolific impregnation od his numerous female acquaintances. This leads his new pals to interrogate him for details and it quickly becomes clear that one of them is entirely ignorant about how they came to be. He begins to explain to the rest of them the extent of his “knowledge” but is rudely interrupted by one of the girls, clearly in awe of this “foreign” newbie. This was a great script, performed with a sense of humour but suffered at times from some poor cueing.
Finally, the winners, Orkney’s own Palace Players took to the stage in a two man show – Down Came the Rain, starring Callum MacArthur and Harry Siderfin. It was a heart-wrenching performance exploring the relationship between an older and younger brother, the latter of whom has learning difficulties. Although the play was only about half an hour, as an audience member I was made to feel as if I’d known the pair far longer. There was a rich backstory and much was left unsaid; the silences were equally as expressive as the dialogue. These talented young actors were able to capture the tension effectively, which made for a raw, affecting climax.
After a short “party”, at which I was able to congratulate the victors and chat to the other participants and fellow volunteers, I was shuttled to the Bothy Bar, where I had the pleasure of witnessing the blues rock trio, Jackalope, perform.
As it was the weekend preceding the day of Saint Patrick’s, the band had in truth recruited a fourth member, fiddler Anna Rothnie, to give a folky flavour to their Irish themed numbers.
I arrived to the sound of their signature stompy grooves. Even on this initial impression I could observe that their sound was more dynamic in range, there were more layers of distortion and volume being experimented with; a more confident, complex sonic landscape was being created than I had previously heard from the band.
Quickly, a pub-dweller raised the question, “D’ye ken any Bruce Springsteen?”
Alas, the band members politely disappointed him. However, they were able to appease the chatty checked-shirted chap with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On – a melodious breath of fresh air, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one.
With new recruit in tow the band did a lively cover of the Dropkick Murphys’ Shipping Up to Boston, which lilted along with its bizarre mix of punk and Irish folk. The guitar and fiddle traded the melody nicely. Next came the rather seasonally inapt Fairytale of New York – a great song and brave choice for March. This featured a vocal duet from Stead and Rothnie and though perhaps not quite executed as ideally desired, their ambition was to be commended.
The band went on to play some covers with highlights including QOTSA’s No One Knows, in which Harrison demonstrated a diverse range of complex drum fills; Brianstorm by Arctic Monkeys, and Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused. Jackalope treated the crowd to some of the material from the upcoming E.P, they debuted a grittier, angrier sound that diverges from their earlier, more traditional blues focused efforts.
Jackalope closed with an unrecognisable cover of Taylor Swift, which sounded particularly Muse-y, followed by the corny but classic Born to Be Wild, which featured an unexpected midway Pulp Fiction breakdown. My main criticism would be the want of melody in some of their songs. Perhaps some, wiser critics, would dare to cry “too much beat”? Nevertheless I believe the fact Jackalope is not afraid to be abrasive, to offend, and to divide is admirable in itself.