Last night’s dose of folk commenced at The Shetland Concert and Dance in Isleburgh. The evening saw the likes of Wayfarer, Square Da Mizzen, Mahogany and Husquoy Collection spotlighted for the local and visiting audience.
Square Da Mizzen promised, “A good, old set of tunes” and delivered just that, along with some original compositions. “Boy, Du Should Have Been Wi Me on the Western Ocean” told of warmly recounted tales of the herring and whaling days. You could almost smell the salty sea air coming off the stage.
Izzy Swanson introduced singer Julie Moncrieff and told us that Julie was going to present “a fragrant bouquet” of her favourite songs. In elegant, ruffled red dress and side-slung hair Julie looked as much Seville as Scalloway.
Julie’s confidence and voice have grown. She emerged from a stint doing backing vocals to lead her own band at last year’s festival. This year she performed in a simple duo, skilful guitar accompaniment being provided by Ian Spofforth.
Her choices are romantic, feminine and genuine: Natalie Merchant, Alison Krauss and a Shetland tale of unrequited love, to name but a few. Her rich, rooted voice can deliver soft notes tinged with melancholia but also gutsy sounds and will allow her to further expand her repertoire as times goes on.
There was more to come and I could easily have sat in the relaxed environment of Islesburgh for longer, but it was on to a packed Games Hall at the Clickimin.
On a solid bed of musical talent and mischief, The New Rope String Band brings slapstick, general lightsome kafuffle and antics to the stage, and the audience love it.
Robert Burn’s Tam’O’Shanter contains one of my favourite string of words “Where sits our sulky, sullen dame, Gathering her brows like gathering storm”, of which I have been accused on several occasions. That aside, the group’s take on this 18th Century classic was hilarious and actually, pretty clever.
They used a mixture of film and live action to convey the tale of drunkenness and malevolent hi-jinxes. A live reading of the poem was cleverly timed to interact with on screen actors making for a surreal 3-D/ 2-D conversation. Further, stage players move around the projection screen so that filmed and real bodies merge into one.
Brooklyn based The Wiyos perform a big bag of vernacular, American music. As-tall-as-his double-bass, Ten Gallon Hat wearing Seth Travins creates a statuesque lynch pin for the group. Whilst harmonica and kazoo welding Michael Farkas in cap, black slacks and waistcoat looks like he has walked out of a still from Once Upon a Time in America.
Along with Teddy Weber on steel guitar and Parrish Ellis on resonator, ukulele and banjo (amongst other things) these are cool, slick cats. Each move is used primarily to deliver a note, chord or sound but is also precise and theatrical.
From Honky Tonk to dirty Blues and from classic Country to Washboard New Orleans tunes, this was American urban and rural traditional music delivered with panache and a glint in the eye. Big band swing packed into a quartet. Modern-History America has culture and tradition, I learnt.
“Who’s Next?” a voice behind me asked. Another voice replied, “Ach, they’re just some Shetland fiddle band, they’re not bad” (pause) “Only joking, it’s Fiddler’s Bid, they’re’ fucking brilliant”
The headliners took to the stage with a lively barrage of all things feisty and fiddly. Under careful tutorage in Bigton two nights before I had been made aware of the subtle differences in individual fiddlers movements and noted these with interest.
From Kevin Henderson’s incredibly long limbs and fluidity to Maurice’s squat, keen stance and feverishness (If anyone has been whisked away to play for the Trows it must be Maurice) each fiddler’s handling of his instrument is unique and somehow influences the sounds they make.
Catriona McKay played clarsach and piano. Her energetic piano playing made it appear as if she were mushing the fiddlers along like huskies. To hear the clarsach live is a delight. It is magic. Like golden, sonic rain drops leaping off the strings and bursting into the air. I watched Catriona’s hands to try and understand how each stroke and pluck could create such intensity and variety of sound. I couldn’t.
They came with old tunes, new tunes and borrowed tunes. Fiddler’s Bid both celebrate Shetland’s musical canon and add to it. Between each flash of the bow they conjure up something more than a little unearthly. I do wonder if the music is made only by those we can see on stage, or are they joined by some unseen accompaniment?
And to another Folk Festival classic: Sonny Priest and his Festival Club Bar (a new lounge-lizard jazz/ swing band, perhaps) The Festival Club is the same each year, the difference is the visitors. But, there is a warm familiarity in its very sameness. Indeed, there are people that I only see once a year, at the Festival Club. Do they only exist then or do they only come out at Folk Festival time?
The silhouette of a big, cowboy hat in the back of a mini bus, a stumbling, jolly punter or ten, bits of kit being trundled in through back doors, bouncing boogy-ers, bruises and smoke passes, it is all part of Hurly Burly of the club. Last night’s Club Late sessions featured The Revellers, Malachy Tallach and No Sweat amongst others.
Mindful of Burns’ words as recounted earlier in the evening; “Whene’er to Drink you are inclin’d, Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind, Think ye may buy the joys o’er dear; Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare” I took to the road.
Folk music is bound to and born of lands and cultures, but also of folklore. The spirit of Shetland’s otherworldlies in a fiddler’s bow, the witches and warlocks of Burns, even The Wiyos’s tales of New York become modern mythologies when put to music.
In the empty silence of the early hours’ road south it occurred to me that you can never be quite sure what has been stirred by the night’s musical outpourings. The singing, ringing fiddles, the exquisite cascade of the clarsach; they all float out across the isles. And, perhaps, down a barely noticeable, little earthy hole or out into the sea and on to whatever lies therein, listening.
I put my foot down a little harder on the accelerator of my modern day Meg and decided it was perhaps best not to look in the rear view mirror, just in case.
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