“Are you prepared to take Leith of your senses?”

Posted by in December's Magazine

The inimitable Jarvis Cocker can always be relied on to throw out a bold challenge. Leith Theatre rose to it magnificently during nine magical nights in August, when star power came to the people’s port and the venue was the brightest star of them all.

 Jarvis’s typically offbeat and playful performance with new outfit JARV IS was one of the jewels of Edinburgh International Festival’s Leith Theatre Series, a rush of dazzlingly diverse musical performances set against an atmospheric backdrop of art deco grandeur, blinking into the light after 30 years in the shade. 


Jarvis Cocker Leith Theatre August 2019 CREDIT: TREVOR PAKE

All snake hips and long limbs, backed by a band on a mission to entertain, Jarvis entranced the spellbound sell-out crowd with a quirky set drawn from his solo career, with His and Hers the only Pulp era track to show up on the night. 

Birthday greetings to Carson McCullers, Ray Bradbury and John Lee Hooker, sweeties flung into the crowd, and a heartfelt plea for political asylum in Scotland all added to the fun, before a mass singalong of the almost impossibly timely (Cunts Are Still) Running the World.

The Festival returned to Leith last year after a 30-year gap for the Light on the Shore celebration of the glories of Scottish music past and present. This time the Leith Theatre Series spanned genres and international borders via a jaw-dropping assembly of artists from Scotland, England, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and the USA.

Neneh Cherry Leith Theatre August 2019 CREDIT: TREVOR PAKE

Kate Tempest, Neneh Cherry, This Is The Kit, Teenage Fanclub, Anna Calvi, JARV IS, Sharon Van Etten, Villagers and Efterklang all appeared on the stellar bill and at a time when many festivals are called out for under representation, it’s gratifying to see such a strong focus on female artists. 

Kate Tempest led the charge, astonishing and inspiring, pacing the stage while torrents of words spilled out against a backdrop of pulsating industrial noise. Her powerful and often intimate depictions of urban life in the 21st century reverberated through the historic building, rich metaphors exploring existential fear sitting alongside the mundane domestic details of waiting for a bus or putting the bin out.

A genuine celebration of contemporary culture in a long-neglected Leith landmark

Railing against pornography, junk food and the deadening of individuality and emotion, she was drained and overwhelmed by the ecstatic reaction when the house lights went up, drowning in an ecstatic crowd chorus of “We love you Kate!”

The following night an effervescent Neneh Cherry charmed her way through a joyous set. The increasingly radical themes of last year’s Broken Politics were wrapped up in hypnotic grooves, a glorious fusion of hip hop, electronica and drum and bass. Manchild, Woman and 7 Seconds were as distinctive and compelling as ever and when an immaculate Buffalo Stance finally arrived Leith exploded.

A black-suited, white-booted Anna Calvi, armed with a lethal Telecaster and bathed in red light, brought a ferocious intensity to proceedings. The siren call of Swimming Pool and the drama of Take the Girl Out of My Boy sucked the audience into a mesmerising guitar vortex, before she finished with a menacing cover of Suicide’s Ghost Rider, 40 years old and still sounding like it comes from the future. 

New Jersey’s Sharon Van Etten was bewitching. Her raw, emotionally charged songs overflow with power and majesty, with Every Time the Sun Comes Up and Seventeen among so many standout moments. Her connection with the audience was palpable, even before she launched into an unexpected rendition of Sunshine on Leith and declared: “You guys have a lot going on today and you still wanted to come here. I’m touched and everyone in this beautiful theatre has taken such care of us.”

Dublin’s Villagers were a richly textured sonic collage of love and loss, with deeply personal and heartfelt lyrics from lead Villager Conor O’Brien, along with another karaoke moment when he rolled out Elvis’s The Wonder of You on the encore. 

Copenhagen’s Efterklang admitted to nerves about their first live show for six years but quickly seduced the crowd with their experimental otherworldly dream pop.

“It’s quite wonderful to be singing Danish songs in an Edinburgh theatre and to have you singing along,” said a clearly touched Casper Clausen in response to the efforts of the spontaneous Leith community choir.

Teenage Fan Club onstage at Leith Theatre August 2019 CREDIT: TREVOR PAKE

It fell to Teenage Fanclub to seize the baton for the home team and they responded triumphantly, delighting a devoted audience with an exquisite set of gems from their 30-year back catalogue. 

And what a back catalogue it is, from the lovely Metal Baby which sees them at their most Big Star, to Catholic Education, I Don’t Want Control of You and The Concept, finishing with a cover of Neil Young’s Don’t Cry No Tears and a perfect, epic Everything Flows. There’s never been anything brash or presumptuous about Bellshill’s finest. Perhaps that’s the secret of their everlasting appeal, just beautiful chiming guitars, the sweetest of harmonies and an ability to unite a crowd like no other band.

Sharon Van Etten Leith Theatre August 2019 CREDIT: TREVOR PAKE

And it seems Leith Theatre has that magical ability too. The spectacular setting, wonderful sound quality and expressive lighting made the Leith Theatre Series very special, but the atmosphere was the most extraordinary element of all, a genuine celebration of contemporary culture in a long-neglected Leith landmark. 

Director Fergus Linehan has pledged to unfold the International Festival across hitherto untouched areas of the city. It’s sweetly fitting that the first stop for this beacon of the cultural establishment has been proud, rebellious independent Leith…see you all next year.

Caroline Binnie

Twitter: @caroline_binnie

Info: www.leiththeatretrust.org

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