Alex MacKay reviews On the Rocks’ 2015 Opening Event, a Launch Party held at the Byre Theatre. 




As much as the Kate Kennedy boys and Lumsden ladies would like us to regard them as the movers and shakers of conversation in St Andrews, this year’s launch party for the On The Rocks Festival resoundingly confirmed that our student artists and musicians are the real lifeblood of our town.

Now in its seventh year of operations, On The Rocks can afford to showboat, having swelled in popularity and cultural recognition with each passing year. This year’s programme boasts the patronage of, among others, Dames Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Sir Sean Connery and Simon Pegg, as well as a increase in the number of hosted events – fifty at last count. Unsurprisingly emboldened by all of this, the On The Rocks organisers opted for a change in venue for their Launch Party from Ma Bells (where it’s been in previous years) to a full-blown takeover of the Byre Theatre. Billing itself as ‘a celebration of the best of the excellent arts scene that St Andrews had to offer’, the event included various installations and performances scattered around the Byre. For those who bought the flat entry rate of £2, an assortment of folk and jazz musicians entertained in the downstairs lobby, providing jaunty Gaelic rhythms while everyone bought their beer. One of the main attractions and selling points of the evening was a visual installation of fieldwork video footage shot by Social Anthropology PhD students, soundtracked with ‘a live soundscape performance’ from Moodroom Collective’s Maurice Bryson and Charles Field. The installation was marketed as ‘an insight into the worlds [the students] explored, and the people and issues they encountered’. Subjects covered ranged from the homeless of Edinburgh to the kinship lives of men on the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. The subject matter was undoubtedly fascinating; the major issue, however, was that sound and image were frequently disconnected from each other, and the audio of the interviews was frequently drowned out by the music. The two conflicting audio streams became apparent and one had to question the ethics of overlaying a typically funky and throbbing Moodroom set over tender oral testimonies of life on the streets.

The more extensive £6 ticket included entry to the A.B. Patterson Auditorium for an impressive line-up of folk, traditional and alternative musical acts. First up was Jemima Thewes, whose traditional Scottish arrangements supplemented by a glockenspiel-like tongue-drum (an instrument primarily used in ska), offered a nice Celtic twang for the intimate audience gathered. Much of her material focused on an interplay between nature and death, and one of the standouts was a song about a young woman’s attempt to bribe Death that crackled along like fire. The morbidly cheerful tone was aptly captured in ‘Small and Wild’, a pounding number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the soundtrack to The Wicker Man.

Next up was Inti Rowland and his multi-instrumentalist band, who charmed with their familial and friendly presence. The frontman almost cut a comical figure, emerging with his guitar held up to his chin and resembling a lithe grasshopper. In performance, however, Inti channelled a more endearing and emotionally resonant Ben Howard and astounded with the eclectic range of detectable influences. Latin American notes were brought out by tenor horn, cellos and violins included in opening song was reminiscent of early Paul Simon/ ‘El Condor Pasa’, and the harmonic invoked the spirit of Neil Young on the uplifting ‘The Pendulum Swings For The Joy Of It’, which sounded like the coming of spring. My companion for the night remarked that Inti’s music was like a stripped back M83, and indeed, just as with the ‘Midnight City’ artist, you could close your eyes and be transported by Inti Rowland’s sounds.

Closing off the night were Edinburgh band eagleowl, peddling their self-described ‘lethargic pop’. In contrast with the previous acts, the musicians stayed away from extended audience engagement to allow breathing space for the languorous build-up and swell of their lo-fi, sombre material. But supporting the band’s work was another, altogether more resonant visual installation projected behind them, detailing in microscopic close-up, black-and-white footage of marine biology fieldwork – spider-like seaweed expanding and contracting, anemones breezily flowing and Jean Painlevé-referencing seahorses. The interplay of the audio and visual elements was akin to experiencing Angelo Badalomenti’s work on the films of David Lynch, spliced with a note of Warpaint. One could sense the expansion of little universes and the attendant depths of meaning in each one, as well as in each of eagleowl’s provocative and stirring songs.

Bravo to On The Rocks for a well-crafted evening that reminded this reviewer of the vitality and energy represented in the St Andrews art and music scene. For a full list of events being put up by On The Rocks, check out their programme here.



Alex MacKay