The Leith Series: EIF 2022 at Leith Theatre
Review by Caroline Binnie
We’ve been here before but not for a while, so it’s genuinely thrilling to be back in Leith Theatre again for a zesty cocktail of stellar musical talents, lovingly assembled by the Edinburgh International Festival after an enforced two-year gap.
Romanian folk supergroup Taraf De Caliu, New York rapper Princess Nokia, and Falkirk’s finest, Arab Strap, were just a few of the ingredients for an exhilarating 14 nights, spanning genres and international borders, all set against the theatre’s atmospheric background of art deco grandeur, gradually moving back into the light after over 30 years of shade. Last year’s temporary music venue at Edinburgh Park worked well amidst the constraints of Covid, but this felt like the real deal.
Taraf De Caliu got the party started, kicking off the with an infectious, clap-along helping of Romanian folk, fizzing with energy and passion. They’re a folk supergroup, made up of legends of gypsy music, touring the world for three decades and counting the Kronos Quartet and Danny Elfman among their fans. The last of their generation, they shared incredible gypsy folk music distilled over centuries with an enthralled audience.
A few nights later Princess Nokia bounded on stage with The Prodigy’s Firestarter blasting through the sound system, declaring she wanted to embody the spirit of the late Keith Flint. Loud, brash and funny, she brought lashings of New York chutzpah to an adoring and youthful Leith audience, sharing her mike with three young lads at the front, 10, 11 and 13 respectively, and gifting her baseball hat to one of them, much to his obvious delight. That wasn’t the only clothing-related incident either, as later someone hurled a sports bra onto the stage, a fitting end to a high-spirited night full of magical energy.
The mighty Arab Strap flew the flag for Scotland in their inimitable style, a be-shorted and long-bearded Aidan Moffat declaiming dark stories of sin and repentance over Malcolm Middleton’s guitar and an intense swerving back beat. They always sound immense but tonight their sound boomed round the venue, hugely compelling and propulsive, ending with an epic The First Big Weekend and I Would Have Liked Me a Lot Last Night. You can’t help thinking this is what Burns might have sounded like, if only he’d emerged from Falkirk in the late 80s.
Earlier that evening a swift detour to Dr Bell’s Baths for a non-EIF show brought a sweet slice of joyful pop, courtesy of the resurgent Bluebells, with a mix of intriguing new songs, much-cherished classics and judiciously chosen covers. If you judge a band by the company they keep, then Todd Rundgren, Buffalo Springfield and the Velvet Underground are the coolest of companions, with a storming What Goes On one of the highlights, along with a mass-participation rendition of Cath. There’s a new album on the horizon and it’s going to be well worth the wait.
Grammy award-winner Arooj Aftab held a huge audience captive at the start of the final week. Bathed in red light, with a bottle of red wine and a vase of red roses, she was utterly enthralling, with a potent mix of ancient Sufi music and Urdu lyrics drawn from her Vulture Prince album. Melodic and seductive, she also had a fine line in onstage chat, throwing roses out to the crowd, asking where the after-party was and revealing her Grammy is on a bookshelf in her living room.
Perhaps the biggest triumph of the week was a dazzling set by Ezra Furman, spanning identity, religion and what it means to be human, driven by love and anger but full of hope. The first time she played in Edinburgh was to 30 people, tonight’s setting was a more suitably glamorous backdrop for her power and glory, as she shimmied onto the stage in a slinky lilac dress and black boots, dedicating her first song to trans women.
Later on she declared, “It’s great to be back in Scotland where people call out shit to us!” drawing appreciative roars from the enraptured crowd.
Since her last visit she’s gained a whole new audience via her soundtrack to the Netflix hit Sex Education and it was out in force tonight. The set showcased her bold and brilliant new album All of Us Flames, an exhilarating fusion of girl band glam and raw garage power, with some songs getting their first-ever live outings, all sounding very special. There were plenty of familiar crowd pleasers too, topped off by a thrilling encore of Suck the Blood From My Wound, followed by an ecstatic cover of Patti Smith’s Because the Night, dedicated as “a spell of protection for all those present!” A wonderful night, and Ezra’s spell enchanted for many days to come, one of the highlights of a very special Leith Series for the Edinburgh International Festival.
This was Fergus Linehan’s last year as director of the EIF and his reign brought an overdue and very welcome focus on contemporary music, giving it its proper place in the cultural pantheon and extending the festival boundaries to embrace areas of the city previously untouched. Leith Theatre has stepped up to that challenge magnificently, with a spectacular setting, wonderful sound quality and expressive lighting, but the atmosphere has been the most extraordinary element of it all, a genuine celebration of contemporary culture in a long-neglected Leith landmark. See you all next year! ■
Arab Strap on fire and Ezra Furman aflame.
Photographs by Andrew Perry and Ryan Buchanan