Edinburgh Festivals 2016: A Map of the Music

The Skinny ploughs through the Fringe programme so you don't have to. Our guide to August's musical happenings, with commentary from some of the players

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 26 Jul 2016

Those festivals, eh? Coming over here, taking up our streets, plying us with all the things we love the most. Brilliant things like jokes, drama, glitter, booze.  However, unless you're into classy concertos or questionable open mic covers of Wonderwall, music bookings have taken a bit of a back seat in years previous. Happily, The Skinny's here to tell you that the Edinburgh Festivals' tides have changed: it is 2016, and there is a mad variety of exciting, outrageous, cutting-edge musical happenings to be savoured this year. We're going to walk you though the whole damn lot.

First, a disclaimer: gigs throughout August are jumbled within loads of fantastical, artsy happenings. There are plenty of great, straight-up live shows on offer – and we’ll tell you about those too – but be sure to seize your chance to see good music in rare settings.

Music at Edinburgh International Festival

This year the Edinburgh International Festival specialises in unique, interdisciplinary performances that show your favourite artists in a new light... or even backed by a dance company. We gave EIF Festival Director Fergus Linehan a quick call to ask about his bold, diverse booking policy, and he explained that 2016's theme of sorts is "Scottish artists doing collaborative projects."

You'll find this spirit in Mogwai and Mark Cousins' concert/film experience Atomicin Aidan Moffat's Where You're Meant to Be, and in ANOHNI's (formerly of Antony & the Johnsons) recent HOPELESSNESS: an album/collaborative project with Glasgow producer Hudson Mohawke and electronic supremo Oneohtrix Point Never, holding human conflict at its heart. Linehan warns: "It's very confronting! It's not a fun night out... It's a tough theme and it's really good." 

Threads of political commentary will surge through shows like Flit and in the appearance of Young Fathers, about whom Linehan laughs, "maybe a bit of an obvious choice, but they're an Edinburgh band and they're doing incredible things. It's about trying to reflect what's actually going on. 

"Peoples' tastes are much more diverse than they used to be," Linehan emphasises. "The stuff we're trying to do is for people... like, people who like [Godspeed You! Black Emperor] really like Godspeed. People who are very engaged and passionate – that's what the festival should be about. And, artists who are doing something that is very singular – you might walk in and go, 'God, no. I'm walking straight out' but they're reaching into really interesting places."

Summerhall's NEHH Fringe gigs

Nothing Ever Happens Here, Summerhall's sassily named gig series, addresses Edinburgh’s lack of mid-sized music venues. Since March 2015, bookings chief Jamie Sutherland has curated starry selections of local music heroes and international names – and he describes August’s festival marathon (“27 shows in 28 days might be the end of me”) as NEHH’s “centrepiece.”

Spanning experimental club nights, morose indie rock and shiny synth pop, he explains the one unifying theme: “We focus on artists who have a unique view of the world. It’s an enormous privilege to host acts as seminal as Grandaddy and Billy Bragg, but we take our responsibility for providing a platform to young Scottish artists very seriously – hopefully one of the support acts on this year’s bill can come back and headline like Kathryn Joseph this year!”

If emerging Scottish music makers are your thang, Summerhall indeed has plenty. On the 13th you’ll find a bananas double billing of Glasgow’s freshest party starters: tropical popsters Bossy Love haven’t wasted a single second of 2016, charming audiences from Hidden Door to Glastonbury, and they share their ridiculous charisma with glam, glittery synth-rock band WHITE.

WHITE vocalist Leo Condie tells us he’s played at the Edinburgh festivals before, as part of a “kind of Bertolt Brecht act, three years ago,” and that WHITE participated in the ART LATE line-up in Leith last year – but this headline show is the band’s biggest fest billing yet. “To know that we’re on the same bill as [Bossy Love], I’m really excited!” he tells The Skinny. “We’ll be putting in all the effort to make sure it’s a special show… We will pull out all the stops. All of them. Every single one.” It’s going to be a sweat-box, isn’t it? “YES. I hope so!”

Music at the Edinburgh Fringe

Best of the Fringe: Stabbing a biro at random acts in the Fringe programme is one way to navigate Edinburgh at peak fest frenzy, but you should both fear and respect the likelihood of finding yourself trapped at a 4am free show that's heavy on audience participation and low on laughs. Don’t worry; we've got you.

From our favourite garage-pop two-piece Tuff Love taking to theatrical boards at the Traverse, as part of the New Zealand play Daffodils (A Play with Songs) or beatbox maestro Shlomo leading kid-friendly workshops, there's a righteous abundance of talent. If glitzy cabaret is your deal, New Yorker Lady Rizo returns to rip up our favourite pop songs at Assembly Checkpoint. Jazz fan? The Graeme Stephen trio will live-score creepy 1920s German classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in a Leith bar – a perfect excuse to leave behind Old Town madness for a few hours. Alternatively, for the ultimate in August’s anything-goes attitude, experimental punk twins The Garden visit Electric Circus for a show that’ll be far weirder than your usual.

For a deeper insight into the minds of preparing performers, we speak to Fringe veteran Amy Duncan, an Edinburgh-based folk music maestro. Duncan describes her festival history as having played “bits and bobs,” which undersells her billing on a Made In Scotland showcase in 2013 and her three night residency in 2014, during which she workshopped material that would become her newest record, Undercurrents.

Despite sounding totally calm and completely collected, Duncan remembers well the inherent challenges in pulling together a Fringe show. She reflects, “[last time] there was no PA set up – we had to do it ourselves every night. And the sound in the room was quite reverby… it was a challenge, but it was good! We had a good time!” Her St Brides show is a return to a favourite venue, though – “it has a really lovely sound,” she says, clearly relieved. “But... it’s quite a big venue. We’ll bring in more musicians to fill out the sound – and the instrumentation on the album does feature drums and stuff, so it’s a nice thing to do!"

Released in July, Undercurrents was supported by Creative Scotland, and the dreamy, haunting record features musicians from the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Duncan usually tours with as a three-piece – with harpist Fiona Rutherford and bassist Lawrie Macmillan – so expect an extra magical show when she brings a full band to St Brides on the 21st.

Sage Francis on making his Fringe debut

In contrast, Sage Francis will be travelling Transatlantic to woo Edinburgh crowds for the first time. Via emails from over the ocean, Francis tells The Skinny that his label-mate and co-performer B. Dolan has been encouraging him to watch documentaries on the Edinburgh Festival, but thus far he’s resisted: “If I start predicting what I’m about to encounter my stress levels will get out of control!”

The two American emcees/poets offer uniquely cutting perspectives on the world, with a powerful belief in the importance of political lyricism. They’ll be at the Stand in the Square for a whopping twenty shows, which Sage reflects “will really feed into my Groundhog Day nature.”

Francis and Dolan intend to work on new material throughout their stay, on a project they’ve titled Epic Beard Men, and he reckons “there’s a fair chance we’ll test some of that material live… It’ll mostly be a performance where we bounce off each other and that brings us back to how we met in the slam scene in the early 00s.” 

New to Edinburgh but a leader of the spoken word world, Sage is fully on board with the Fringe’s chaotic, creative energy. “Our goal is to draw the crowd into our world as soon as possible. It’s only an hour show, so there’s no time to play around! Let’s go!” 

Finishing up on that motivational note, we’ll just leave you with WHITE’s words of festival wisdom: “It’s relentless. Give all your time to it and just go wild, follow the free drinks and follow the good shows and just be like, cool… where’s the next crazy place?”