Since 2010, the Edinburgh-based literary, music and animation collective Neu! Reekie! have been curating and hosting live shows featuring a diverse array of talent from Scotland and beyond. This year’s Edinburgh International Festival event, headlined by former Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins, is a little different.
The Festival’s purpose-built venue out at Edinburgh Park is impressive but there’s something undeniably surreal about walking into what looks like a giant polytunnel and locating your socially-distanced seat. It feels strangely lonely and – though the audience and stage are sheltered from the rain – decidedly chilly.
But as soon as the Neu! Reekie! founders, poets Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson, bound out on stage and jovially greet the audience, the cold night air and the strange setting are forgotten, overshadowed by the joy of being at a live event once again.
After kicking off the show with their own comedic poetry, Pedersen and Williamson hand over to spoken word poet, Victoria McNulty. McNulty’s set is impassioned and thoughtful, her carefully crafted lines packed with wit and satire. In one poem, she imagines Eve is expelled from the Garden of Eden and trapped for eternity in Calton, Glasgow. Blending biblical allusions with down-to-Earth detail and realism, McNulty transforms her wonderfully bizarre ideas into subversive, humorous and uniquely Glaswegian tales.
Following McNulty is an equally deft lyricist, the Glasgow poet/rapper Darren McGarvey. As Loki the Scottish Rapper, McGarvey has long been a leading force in the growing Scottish hip-hop scene, and is also the author of the 2018 Orwell Prize-winning book Poverty Safari. Throughout his dynamic set, he rails against austerity politics and the rise of fascism, with the occasional pop at leftist internet discourse, handling every topic with a degree of nuance and a dose of humour.
In between his fiercely political verses however, McGarvey is relaxed and genial, admitting he comes across aggressive in his attempt to overcome his nerves. He also gives thanks to the organisers of Neu! Reekie! for their work over the years celebrating Scottish art. In his words, the collective ‘stood for diversity and inclusion long before those became corporate buzzwords.’
This comment especially rings true when the hosts take the opportunity to showcase a variety of other artists’ work in the interludes between the three main acts. First up is a video of Jamaican poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, who sadly passed away on 4th August. Reciting at Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery, the first female dub poet beams as she reads a poem considering Scottish independence from a Jamaican perspective.
Later, a set of vibrant, playful animations by Glasgow School of Art students accompany the charming, female-centred poetry of Hollie McNish, before we are treated to a captivating short film, Repete, by Czech animator Michaela Pavlátová.
But it’s the evening’s final performance, an upbeat and varied set from Edwyn Collins, that gets the crowd most excited. There are cheers as his band dives straight into the jangling introduction of Orange Juice’s first single Falling and Laughing. A thunderous drumming of feet rumbles round the venue during the band’s 1983 hit Rip It Up, and a few people are even up dancing by the end of the night.
The Scottish pop legend is joined on stage by two acoustic guitarists, whose phenomenal playing lends his music a propulsive energy and a crisp, folky sound. Collins’ 2007 song Leviathan is particularly atmospheric, the dark, moody guitar evoking the churning seas and stormy Caithness skies the lyrics describe.
Collins’ voice is as strong as ever. His full, sonorous baritone is the backbone of each the tracks he performs, one of which he claims he hasn’t rehearsed. ‘So I’ll rehearse it now,’ he quips. As well as his 1994 solo hit A Girl Like You, many of the night’s highlights are the slower-paced numbers. Orange Juice’s dreamy In A Nutshell and Collins’ comforting lullaby Home Again are both rendered beautifully.
Wishing us good night with a jaunty wave of his walking stick, Collins concludes a lively and entertaining evening. From searing political poetry to buoyant post-punk, the show remains optimistic and welcoming throughout. But with Neu! Reekie! back in their native city, the artists returning to live performances, and the audience reconnecting with Scottish art and culture after a year of Zoom meetings and virtual events, the most resonant feeling is one of coming home.
With thanks to Zoë White for this review.