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Thomas Fraser Festival returns in style

| Written by Neil Riddell

April Verch performing in Burra. She wrote a song in honour of Thomas Fraser. Photo: Davie Gardner April Verch performing in Burra. She wrote a song in honour of Thomas Fraser. Photo: Davie Gardner ORGANISERS of the Thomas Fraser Festival say they enjoyed “some of the best nights we’ve ever had” as the country music jamboree made a welcome return to the calendar following a three-year absence.

Karl Simpson, who unearthed his fisherman grandfather’s recordings following Fraser’s death in 1978, said he was “absolutely delighted” with how the festival's comeback went.

Among the visiting musicians were Canadian bluegrass fiddler April Verch and her band, Oxfordshire singer Ags Connolly and Nashville honky-tonker Scott Icenogle, who shared the bill over the three nights with a rich crop of local performers including Kansa and Laeverick.

Karl said that after a 120-strong turnout on Thursday, Friday “suffered a bit” due to competing with other events for an audience, but Burra Hall was “pinned” on Saturday night and the organisers could probably have sold a fair few more tickets.

Kansa were one of the star turns among several local acts on the bill. Photo: Davie Gardner Kansa were one of the star turns among several local acts on the bill. Photo: Davie Gardner “It was even better than I expected,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect after having three years out. Probably Saturday night was the best in terms of enjoyment and the quality of the performance level of the musicians that night, everybody just seemed to be spot on.”

He said Verch and her band were ”so professional and polished, so enthusiastic – just faultless, to be honest”.

Verch wrote a song in honour of Fraser, whose reel-to-reel recordings were discovered following his death and subsequently released across six CDs, and paid tribute to his influence and what he stands for.

She told BBC Radio Shetland: “I don’t think it’s that musicians aren’t passionate about what they do, but he was a special case because he was playing music just for the sake of playing music.

Ags Connolly from Oxfordshire. Photo: Davie Gardner Ags Connolly from Oxfordshire. Photo: Davie Gardner “He didn’t think we’d be listening to his recordings now, y’know, he didn’t think a girl from the Ottawa valley would be a fan, I bet, and when it comes from a pure place like that I think that’s where the power really is in music, in bringing us all together that way.”

Karl said it was great to hear other musicians speaking about Fraser in those terms and it “makes it worthwhile, all those hard years of doing it”.

He was also pleased to have Connolly in Shetland as an unknown quantity: “He’s really good, I’m really pleased with how he went down and it’s good to bring up somebody completely unheard of.”

Icenogle and his group, meanwhile, featured Nashville players who work as session musicians for some of the top acts in country music – along with some of the finest fingerwork Karl had ever witnessed from guitarist Larry Garvin. “I have an interest in guitar music and I don’t think I’ve ever seen guitar-playing like that,” he said.

Karl said none of the local acts involved were “fazed by coming on before or after any of the other acts”, with special mention to rootsy five-piece Kansa for their performances.

Organiser Karl Simpson said Larry Garvin's guitar playing was among the best he's ever seen. Photo: Davie Gardner Organiser Karl Simpson said Larry Garvin's guitar playing was among the best he's ever seen. Photo: Davie Gardner He said the decision to take a breather after 2012 was mainly for personal reasons, and the workload involved in organisation means it will “probably” be 2018 before the next instalment of the Thomas Fraser Festival.

“I felt it was useful to judge where we are in terms of demand,” Karl told Shetland News. “There’s that much on in Shetland nowadays – every weekend you see different variety concerts, concerts in Mareel, all competing for folk’s time.

“To pummel folk with an annual thing isn’t maybe wise. Never say never, but I doubt it’ll be annual – more like every two years or three years.

“Tons of folk were asking [when the next one will be] but I just can’t see it [happening in 2016]. With the funding situation with Shetland Charitable Trust, which is going to be significantly reducing funding for festivals, we can’t ignore that.

“You rely on folk to buy tickets, and if they’re overwhelmed it’s difficult to make it all work. We’ll need to discuss it as a committee, but in my own mind it’ll probably be 2018.

“If the finances wrought, you never know, but I’m just not quite sure. I kinda wish it was on again next weekend – apart from the organisational aspect!”

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