“So there you have it, four magical nights in a wonderful, historic Leith venue”

Posted by to The Blog on February 27th

The Jesus and Mary Chain, a celebration of Scottish pop’s unsung heroines, Fire Engines splitting up all over again and Neu! Reekie! with added Neu! from Michael Rother… just a few of the ingredients in the dizzy cocktail that put Leith centre stage at the Edinburgh International Festival for the first time in decades (writes Caroline Binnie). 

Since Fergus Linehan took the reins as director, the EIF’s relaxed its traditional starchiness and given popular music its proper place in the cultural pantheon. This year it went for it big style, in Leith.

Running across 18 exhilarating August nights the EIF strutted its stuff at Leith Theatre in the shape of Light on the Shore, a dazzling programme celebrating the glories past and present of Scottish music, crossing decades and genres, all set against an atmospheric backdrop of art deco grandeur, blinking into the light after 30 years of shade.  

Seductive stuff, and in the absence of a golden ticket it’s impossible to explore everything, so here’s a taste of my adventures in Leith last month.

Edinburgh’s favourite artistic agitators, Kevin Williamson and Michael Pederson of Neu! Reekie! assemble two of the standout shows, eclectic and exciting as always. At the first, Michael Rother, the last surviving member of Neu!, appears on a mouthwatering bill, alongside New York punk priestess Lydia Lunch, Dunbar’s finest hip hop band Honey Farm and Fire Engines, sounding their siren for the last time.

As the mighty Fire Engines take the stage for only the second time in the last decade, there’s a collective intake of breath at Davy Henderson’s fashion choice of knee socks and a parka made of silver foil. 

“Hello teenage Leith,” drawls Davy as they launch into a frantic set covering Get up and Use Me, Hungry Beat and New Things in Cartons, still deliciously scratchy decades on.

Next up’s Lydia Lunch, prowling round the stage, black clad, blood red lipstick, oozing attitude as torrents of words spill out. “Don’t ask me how old I am,” she snarls. “I still look better than you.” Argue at your peril.

Time for Fire Engines’ second set and this time Davy’s prancing around in pink underpants and a MALC T-shirt in honour of their special guest – Leith’s very own guitar god Malcolm Ross. Josef K’s Crazy to Exist follows, before they exit with the ultimate version of Dischord.

The evening ends with Kevin Williamson keeping a promise made in these very pages and introducing Michael Rother in German. The set that follows is immaculate, as propulsive and compelling, as you’d expect from a masterful artist with Kraftwerk, krautrock pioneers Neu! and collaborations with Bowie and Eno in his musical pedigree, a titanic performance in the port of Leith.

Hidden Door’s night of programming punctuates the two Neu! Reekie shows. The not-for-profit arts festival’s played a big part in shaking the mothballs off Leith Theatre, including an explosive show by Young Fathers earlier this year. Tonight’s handpicked line up is Spinning Coin, Honeyblood and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Honeyblood are a feisty delight, making their trademark racket, Stina up front and Cat giein’ it laldy on the drums. The Jesus and Mary Chain emerge from swirls of dry ice. At least Jim does. William remains largely invisible throughout a set that kicks off with Amputation and powers through all the JAMC singalong favourites you know and love for the next 90 minutes. They’re being the Jesus and Mary Chain and they’re quite good at it you know.

They finish with I Hate Rock and Roll. Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop’s tweeting enthusiastically from the balcony and with that the Mary Chain officially enter the establishment.

Three nights later we’re back for Neu! Reekie! 2. This time with Linton Kwesi Johnson,    and The Pastels. Linton Kwesi Johnson hasn’t performed in Scotland for over 30 years, and the dignity and quietly controlled passion he brings to Sonny’s Lettah and New Crass Massahkah silences the hall, a thousand people rapt on his every word.

“The Vaseline’s won’t disappoint the seedy people of Leith,” promises Michael Pederson. And they don’t, galloping through an infectious set, taking time out to salute Chas ‘n’ Dave amidst a run of classics including Dying For It, Son of a Gun and Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam. Tonight it’s easy to see why Kurt Cobain fell for them.

“Maybe I should take my trousers off like Davy Henderson,” quips Eugene. He doesn’t but it’s still a treat to have them back.

In between bands the late Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit appears on the big screen, sparking huge cheers and a palpable sense of loss for a much-loved artist.

Last up, it’s The Pastels, putting their enduring indie pop perfection right at the heart of the International Festival, right in the heart of Leith. They’re wonderful, of course, dedicating a song to Aretha Franklin and closing a triumphant Neu! Reekie! 2 with Baby Honey.

Our final fling at Light on the Shore comes courtesy of Carla J Easton and Since Yesterday, a sparkling celebration of the great-unsung pioneers of Scottish pop, many out of the spotlight for decades. 

Beautifully curated by Easton, the evening begins bang up to date, with the punky Van T’s followed by joyous effervescent pop from Sacred Paws, current holders of the Scottish Album of the Year title. What follows is a very special showcase for those who paved the way, backed by an ace all-girl house band.

First up are Gaye and Rachel from The Twinsets, sounding like Leith’s answer to Bananarama, with one nana peeled off. They’re followed by Trash and Anne from The Ettes, wearing Siouxsie on their sleeves. Just 11 gigs back in 1979, now 40 years later they’re on stage at the EIF and Reality Bites sounds superb. 

The honeyed voice of Sunset Gun’s Louise Rutkowski and the abrasive dancey fun of Lungleg’s Jane McKeown move us into the 80s and 90s. Emma Pollock takes to the stage for a beautiful version of America Blue by His Latest Flame, followed by Courage, a song by Sophisticated Boom Boom, proud possessors of three Peel sessions back in the day.

Then comes a real lump in the throat moment.  Jeanette McKinley of Corstorphine’s forgotten 60s pop sensations The McKinleys joins Pollock for a moving duet of her hit Sweet and Tender Romance, recorded with her late sister Sheila in 1964.

That sets the scene for Rose McDowall of Strawberry Switchblade and Adele Bethel teaming up for the song that gave the evening its name, before the smart and sassy Bossy Love end the evening by inviting Leith to dance.

So there you have it, four magical nights in a wonderful, historic Leith venue. Let’s hope this seal of approval from EIF turbocharges the ongoing campaign to resurrect it permanently as a creative hub and the city’s answer to the Barrowland Ballroom.

Caroline Binnie

Info: Find out more out more about the campaign to reopen Leith Theatre at: www.leiththeatretrust.org

Twitter: @caroline_binnie 

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