Hidden Door Festival

The Old Royal High, Edinburgh

17 June 2022

I hadn't planned to come to a music festival. Really, I thought I was buying a ticket to a performance of Esther Swift's The Light Gatherer, and I only later realised it was a full evening pass to the festival. I only knew two other acts on the bill: Dana Gavanski and Iona Fyfe, and was keen to see both, plus as many of the other half-dozen bands as the stage timings allowed. Might as well get my money's worth!

I arrived at 5.00, with 30 minutes to check out the venue before the first band started. It's one of the more unusual venues I've been in: an abandoned school building with one stage set up outside and others housed in various rooms accessed by a labyrinth of corridors. Several of the rooms were given over to art installations, so there was plenty to look at while I waited and during the gaps between bands.

First on was Naima Bock, who I had never even heard of before but who instantly became one of my favourite singers. Amazing voice, backed by a superb folky-rock band. She has a debut album coming out next month and I've already pre-ordered.

A dash inside to see Iona Fyfe, who I discovered a couple of years ago when she was keeping us entertained with live streams during the first lockdown. She sings Scots ballads, accompanying herself on the piano, and her voice is beautiful. She also has a relaxed and easy rapport with the audience. Of all the acts I see tonight, she feels like the only one who has really mastered the art of chatting with a crowd.

Back outside for John Frances Flynn, who I would call a folk singer except his band feels like it's about to break into doom metal at any moment, it's all distorted guitars and dissonant violin. It's an interesting sound but I'm not completely won over by it.

I stay by the outside stage for the other act on my must-see list: Dana Gavanski. I honestly can't remember how or when I discovered her (was she reviewed in Prog magazine maybe?), but her 2020 album Yesterday is Gone is a superb piece of psychedelic pop.

Live, she's amazing. A great singer, backed by a rocking band, her unique off-kilter songs sounding powerful and timelessly beautiful. I feel like it's 1968 again, and to complete that illusion she finishes with a cover of a Kinks song. (No, not that one.) (Not that one, either.) Overall, she's just brilliant, and happily gets a longer playing time than anyone else so far.

I have a couple of unknown options next, so after a quick food break I randomly choose This is the Kit on the outdoor stage. Before thay even play a note they get the biggest crowd reaction of the night (the crowd, which felt very sparse at the start of the evening, had been filling out nicely), so I guess they must be famous or something. I'm expecting great things, and they are ... pretty bland. They are not bad, I can't fault their playing, and the crowd does love them, but they just fail to interest me.

After half a set, I go inside to catch the last three songs from Penelope Isles (a band, not a person!) instead. They are awesome. Thunderingly loud post-rock with masses of distortion and a bass that makes the floor vibrate. I wish I had chosen differently and seen their whole set. Both albums bought, though I feel they are a band that really needs to be experienced live to get the full impact.

Overall this has been a great little festival. An eclectic mix of music, fascinating venue, and great organisation (I think everything runs to time, or to within about five minutes). And something that has only just ocurred to me: of all the bands I've seen, only one had no female members. Something like that shouldn't be remarkable these days, but it is, and that has put this festival streets ahead of any big-name festival you care to mention.

Then it's just a wait for them to open the doors to the Central Chamber for The Light Gatherer. When they finally finish the sound check and the doors open, it's a revelation. The Central Chamber is a beautiful auditorium in pristine condition, a contrast to the bare stone walls of the rest of the building. The band is set up on a stage in the centre, completely surrounded by the audience in plush bench seats. If I had one complaint, it's that the thudding dance music from another stage was audible, very annoying in the quiet parts of Esther's music. And the vocal was mixed a bit low at the start, but that improved as it went on.

As I'm pretty nearly the first person through the doors, I grab a prime spot behind Esther Swift's harp. (Which may sound counter-intuitive, but I can always sit in front of her. And this way I can watch her feet.)

So, this is the third time I've seen Esther Swift's The Light Gatherer performed, and I'm sure I've described it before so I won't go into detail. But briefly: it's a 50-minute suite of music in seven movements, scored for four harps, violin, viola, cello, trombone, saxophone, drums, piano and voice.

And it's just incredible. Esther Swift is the best contemporary composer I know. The music is inventive and unexpected. It's beautifully melodic while not afraid to drop into complete dissonance, it's full of driving rhythms, sometimes six different ones at the same time, and it's just ... breathtaking. I call it classical music, but really it's too good to confine with a label. There's a very strong jazz vibe (reinforced by some amazing sax solos and manic drumming). It's just ... just everything you could want from music.

I bought a full-priced festival ticket to see (I thought) this one piece, and considered it a bargain. And I would do it again.

This is just the best piece of music I have ever heard.