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Rock, Salt & Nails…as fresh as ever

Paul Johnston during Friday night's birthday concert.

As we are reminded regularly during the evening, Rock, Salt & Nails are 21 years old. Positively beaming with delight, they treat us to a whirlwind ride through their back catalogue, a potted history of the band, many embarrassing stories and a steady procession of guests from over the years.

The sense of celebration is catching. A merry crowd of all shapes and sizes have packed into the Oran Mor to enjoy the party. In sharp contrast to some of Celtic Connections’ more sombre audiences, this bunch pogo, sway, clap and sing whenever commanded.

The band is more than ready, tearing into each tune with gusto. After what must be hundreds of shows since their debut at The Booth, Hillswick, back in 1991, this group still visibly enjoy playing together. In an industry littered with the corpses of bands that fell apart, this is as good an indicator of longevity as any.

Things begin to get really frantic as fiddler Linda Irvine leads us into an instrumental from 2003’s Midnight Rain. Linda’s Set is an excellent example of Rock, Salt & Nails success in fusing the rich heritage of traditional Shetland music with modern – okay, ‘90s – rock styles. The racing fingertips of fiddlers driven by a thumping backbeat is a powerful combination.

Frontman Paul Johnston may command the spotlight with his leather trousers, Jaggerish pouts and motormouth – almost as fast as those fiddling fingers – but this is very much a team effort. As demonstrated by the guest spots this evening, Johnston has consistently brought together a group of truly fantastic musicians over the years, and should be applauded for it. Indeed whenever he’s not singing or chatting, he can hardly take his eyes off those around him.

Special mention must go to guest Paul Anderson – a Scottish star in his own right – who joins the stage for several tunes. A gentle giant, he plays with a delicacy that belies his Action Man appearance. My personal highlight is the Anderson composition A Desperate Moment. In the spirit of the occasion Johnston reveals how this song was very nearly named David Jamieson’s Colonic Irrigation Disaster after a certain someone’s unpleasant experience in hospital. Mr Jamieson blushes behind his drumkit.

It is easy to see how this little band from Shetland has garnered and maintained such a loyal fan base, for while they may rock on record, onstage they shine. As the show builds to a climax Johnston leads the audience in song. Several hundred voices fill the air with a huge, stirring chant. The warmth of feeling for this band is visible in the open-mouthed faces around me.

Generally, a 21st birthday concert does not seem like an appealing prospect, but Rock, Salt & Nails are as fresh as ever. It is their unshakeable enthusiasm for live music that keeps drawing audiences back year on year. Any young band making their festival debut this year should pay close attention. They might just learn something.

Jim Bevington

Rock, Salt & Nails @ Celtic Connections 2012, Oran Mor, Glasgow – 3 February.