FARA – 23rd March 2023

It’s five-and-a-half years since we last saw FARA at Baston and the line-up has evolved. Jennifer Austin has flown the nest and keyboard player extraordinaire Rory Matheson has joined the three original band members, described on their website as ‘Orkney frontwomen’ – Jeana Leslie, Catriona Price and Kristan Harvey. Orkney frontwomen sounds like the perfect front three for an invincible Orcadian football team (appropriate enough since tonight England beat Italy 2-1 in a Euro 2024 qualification match).

Tonight’s Baston audience chose to forego the delights of record-breaking Harry Kane and his chums and a brilliant choice that turned out to be. This has to be one of the most memorable Baston evenings for quite some time, such was the high quality of the overall performances. The varied and necessary elements of a great evening of live music were all here – top quality musicianship, clear and balanced sound, thoughtful song choice, warm stage presence, interesting between-song banter and a clear regard for the audience.

The first half was largely dedicated to promoting and playing tunes from Energy Isles, their 2022 homage to renewable energy innovation on Orkney. It is a project whereby they “wanted to highlight Orkney’s role in raising awareness of, and curbing, the climate crisis”. We hear Wind Dancers, White Horse Power, Energy Islands, Broom Power, Song In The Night and Solar amongst others – all tunes that showcased their abilities to play lovely music whilst evoking the power of the landscape.

All three women play the fiddles to the highest standard and their playing is symbiotic – they appear to complement each other effortlessly. Of course years of practice and knowledge of each other’s playing must be key as well. Special mention must also go to Jeana’s exceptional powerful yet sensitive singing and, while I’m at it, I must mention Catriona’s boots, the most splendid golden boots ever to strut the compact Baston stage! Stunning!

The second half was slightly more varied and included a fine solo showcase from Rory, a piece during which he played so increasingly fast that a fire extinguisher for his keyboard might have been necessary. The quartet also played a version of Joe South’s Games People Play as well as My Heart’s In The Highlands from their 2018 album, Cross the Line.

It seems unfair to pick out a highlight but I will – the poignant The Hampshire, a tune written to commemorate HMS Hampshire which sank after leaving Orkney’s Scapa Flow in 1916 when it hit a mine. All but twelve of the 737 crew perished. Amongst them was Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum. The Kitchener Memorial was erected near the site in 1926 and this tune, written by Kristan, was commissioned for the opening of an arc-shaped commemorative wall, added in 2016 to name all those men who lost their lives. FARA’s playing of the tune was one of those Baston pin-drop moments. Truly memorable.

FARA’s polished performance was evidence of years of live performance practice combined with a love of music rooted in their obvious love for their native Orkney Islands. When they asked if anyone had seen their Orkney Series of YouTube videos, I am embarrassed to write that I had never heard of them. I have now! Visit the internet and look at these videos, learn about energy creation accompanied by beautiful music. Time well spent.

Special mention must be made of the sound quality. It is tempting for bands to turn up and place a forest of microphones and stands, along with AC/DC-sized speakers, all of which add little to what is Baston’s intimate performance area. Tonight Scott (and our very own Graham) got it just right – their endeavours added to the clarity of the whole proceedings, in particular highlighting the women’s splendid voices.

By the end of the evening we had experienced an extraordinary performance from exemplary musicians from Scotland as well as an England football win – what more could this reviewer wish for?

Text and photos by Toby Wood