It started with an email from Hans at Shetland News.
“Dave, if you’re not doing anything could you cover the blues festival this weekend.”
It didn’t take me long to reply in the affirmative – a phone call to Jimmy Carlyle, the genial director, secured my press pass with a nonchalant arrangement as in: “I’ll likely see you somewhere on Saturday so you can pick it up.”
I packed my stuff in the little green goddess (or “popemobile” as some local wag christened my trusty Berlingo) and made for the toon.
Never expecting musicians to be on time I was surprised to find that I’d missed the first Saturday act in the Lounge Bar, that most hallowed of hostelries, and had my first musical encounter of the Hillman Hunter kind in the Wheel Bar.
Oddly enough a lemon coloured Hillman Hunter of late ‘60s vintage passed in front of me (honestly) just as I entered the venue.
Cue Jed Potts and the Hillman Hunters playing to a full house in the upstairs room at the former garage, Mac & Macs, which probably sold Hillman Hunters.
Being of an age to remember the Hillman as a rather pedestrian mode of transport, I was stirred as sleep-deprived Mr Potts (this was their second stint, the first being at Brae on Friday) strolled into his anything but pedestrian set.
With a line-up of lead guitarist Jed Potts, drummer Jonny Christie and bassist Pauric Logue, the band formed in 2008 playing blues covers round Edinburgh from the early ‘50s, ‘60s R&B material. They kept clear of anything that could be construed as rock ‘n’ roll, but lately penned their own material.
“Ferry jet lag” is how he described his mindset as the band alighted on the Auld Rock, but his fresh grooves settled into a blend of contemporary, intelligent musical interpretations, which set glasses clinking, feet tapping and air guitars playing havoc with the bar staff.
Speaking to Jed after the set he tells me that there is a huge upsurge of interest in the genre among his contemporaries. Well, the band has caught the wave and is riding it.
Next stop the Marlex and Tim Lothar, the Great Dane, actually a wee guy with a HUGE voice.
Now I didn’t consider the Scandiwegians, who I had always associated with progressive modern jazz, as proponents of the blues vernacular. How wrong could I be?
Lothar, who hails from the far north of Denmark, has single-handedly changed my attitude.
A drummer by trade, he picked up the guitar eight years ago and is picking up accolades throughout Europe and further afield.
Influenced early on by Mississippi blues greats like Huddy Ledbetter and Robert Johnson, Lothar has been developing his own particular style of clawhammer slide accompaniment to his own lyrical composition with a voice that cuts through the room like gravelled steel.
Tunes like “Shake It And Break It ” and “In It For The Ride” displayed a real mastery of guitar technique which would be as at home in the Louisiana Bayou as the bars of Copenhagen.
Onwards and upwards, a head full of blues and a belly full of Da Fort fish and chips – arguably the best in Britain – it is to be my first experience of a concert in the Mareel, our much vaunted and awaited cinema and music venue.
Well, I was not disappointed. The hall was dressed for a cabaret-style table setting with ample room for dancing should the mood strike, as it inevitably did as soon as that native reticence melted.
First up, Lincoln Durham whose English twin city moniker conjures a solid granite foundation. Jeez, nothing could be further from the truth.
Exploding onto the stage with his home made box and wire guitar, this man rocked the auditorium with his dark and twisted vibe set to a three dimensional soundscape of intense beat and feet, a one man powerhouse of sound and lyric.
The sound in the auditorium was really terrific, crisp and clear, every nuance and harmonic a marriage of acoustic and sound engineering, which has to be world class.
As Dolly Parton once said: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
I caught up with Austin, Texas based Lincoln and his lady Melissa after the show. Asking how he would describe his music Lincoln, told me he’s still trying to figure that one out.
“A lot of people describe it as swampy folk rock or a monster version of Jack White or Tom Waits meets Americana. A backwoods, hard-edged, folk rock played in an obnoxious style.”
He was being a bit hard on himself there, for a spellbound audience took to the floor, conjuring an atmosphere reminiscent of the days of the old North Star in this shining new venue.
Home sown, home grown and home blown jazzers Troppo Funk turned to the blues in a set which blew the boundaries of nomenclature that sometimes an divide the music world.
A young group of Shetland musicians: Norman Wilmore (sax), Hayden Hook (bass), Joe Watt (guitar), Max Tyler (keyboard and horn) and Lewis Murray (drums) served up a recipe of funky grooves with a side of 12 bar riffs and a dollop of chocolate jazz beats for dessert.
These magpies of the music scene pick influences from across the musical genres, melding a fresh approach to contemporary jazz/blues, gliding from Wilmore’s rhythmic sax solos to the melodic overtones of Tyler’s keyboard riffs punctuated by the wild gyrations of hirsute Watt’s screaming guitar, all given structure with Hook’s authoritative bass line.
With a growing list of accolades and TV appearances I can see Troppo carving a niche in the UK music scene and further, keep your eyes peeled for their next appearance (Mareel on 22 September).
So where do you start with Krissy Matthews?
Showman who outbo’s Diddly in a glam blues pelvic thrustingly pushy R&B thump grind?
Maybe not, but I can tell you this, this guy delivers a high octane mix of powerful and entertaining un-selfconscious rock. The perfect wake up and smell the coffee crowd pleaser certainly had the audience jumping.
Definitely a live act, this man barely into his 20s has worked with people like John Mayall and tours Europe with his combo – guitar: Krissy Matthews; vocals, bass: Keith Matthews; vocals, drums: Chris Sharley.
I caught their set in Da Wheel Bar on Saturday as well as Mareel and I have to say that they gave their all in both venues, the more intimate ambience of the Juke Box sized Wheel suiting them perfectly.
Ending his big stage set with an kind of acoustic flamenco meets Black Sabbath in a pure demonstration of versatility, this roller is one to watch.
I have to add that the good sound in all of the non Mareel venues, courtesy of Stevie and Amanda, made these gigs really work – great work guys and a suitable juncture to say that Jimmy Carlyle and his team got the mix just right in having the main concerts at Mareel and the satellite (mostly free!) taster sessions scattered round the town and country.
This is a formula that works on many levels and I hope they stick to it for next year’s 10th.
This year’s headline act
The headline act this year was the exciting blues rock band Jon Amor Blues Group.
They released their first album last year and took the UK and European blues scene by storm.
UK vocalist and guitarist Amor joins forces with long-time collaborators Dave Doherty, Chris Doherty and Si Small.
Drawing inspiration from the blues greats of the past like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as more contemporary acts like The Black Keys and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the group’s sound is powerful, raw and uncompromising.
They were nominated for best album and group at this year’s British Blues Awards and Jon was nominated for best guitar player and vocalist.
Their Saturday night set had the audience dancing in the pit in a brilliant session. Well done the blues festival for getting this class act to Shetland.
I was really pleased to catch up with Rebecca Tate and Trevor Steger the husband and wife duo known as BabaJack.
I’d caught their set on the Saturday in the Mareel bar and was immediately taken with their back to the roots acoustic treatment.
I met them again in the Lounge on Sunday afternoon. Just a totally brilliant set, the perfect way to spend a Sunday I thought, as I settled into their acoustic energetic down home vibe overlooked by a pantheon of photos and paintings of Shetland ‘s musical legends, a fitting backdrop to the earthy tones provided by Bec’s percussive Djembe and Cahon (Spanish for box!) and Trevor’s hand crafted “winebox” guitar fashioned from wardrobes and an old piano.
“It’s what the early blues guys – Bill Broonzy, Lightnin Hopkins – used when they started out.”
How would I describe their sound? Well I couldn’t compare it to anything I’ve heard in the folk or blues vernacular, it really defies definition.
Becky puts it succinctly as “the kind of rootsy bluesy thing that we do”, but that doesn’t even touch it.
From an outsiders view the duo (although they have a bassist Marc Miletitch when they play gigs on the mainland), produce a sound far greater than the sum of the parts, which is helped by their engagement with the audience. You genuinely do feel like part of the act.
Becky comes from a percussive background in reggae and folk, “influenced by the blues, but not limited”, as Trevor puts it.
Speaking of their acoustic session in Mareel they both think that it could be a favourite international destination for musicians, a thought echoed by Lincoln Durham whose first venture to the UK was at the Shetland venue.
No Shetland festival would be complete without the input of our local talent and this year’s blues festival did not disappoint, names culled from the annals of Shetland heritage reformatted for todays festival going generation.
Young Arthur Nicholson fronts the band Muddy Bay and the Deep Sea Rollers and accompanied by the venerable daddy of Shetland blues, his own dad Brian, the group poured out a heady brew of down home blues, his velvet yet gravelly tones cutting through the excellent backing provided by Gwyn Davies (drums), Brian Nicholson (bass/vocals), Max Tyler (keys), Robbie Walterson (guitar). Let the good times roll Arthur, to paraphrase one of the songs in the set.
I didn’t get to see Shetland Legends, Pete stack & the Raeburns but I ken it must have been brilliant. Thanks to photographer Chris Brown and Shetland Blues Festival for sharing this photo of the man himself, Stevie Gordon.
Last word from Jimmy Carlyle. “This has definitely been the best one yet, number nine and partly because we’ve moved into the Mareel, used the box office and got a great committee, as ever we’ve got great bands coming up who appreciate playing in Shetland.
“This year we’ve a lot more media interest from the mainland so I’m hoping to see more folk from the mainland.
“We have one of the major blues magazines covering it and certainly more visitors.
“The Mareel’s been great, I knew it would be open, I didn’t have a plan B – it was the right decision.
“People have been coming up to us and saying what a great venue, the sound is amazing, the lighting, yes there have been issues but they have been dealt with, it’s a learning curve and we’re behind it.
“It’s been a long time coming and has to be supported. I think Shetland should be proud of this, the bands that were here couldn’t believe what they were coming to, they all went away saying the sound was brilliant.
“Year 10 next year, some bands coming back some new acts to be booked. All we want from the blues festival is happy bands, happy audience and people going out with smiles on their faces, that’s all you can asked for and we got it this year.”
And the Mareel as a festival hub – does it work?
“No doubt about it in my opinion. Of course we lose the intimacy of the Islesburgh experience, but the open feel of the place and the informality offered by the bar area as a late night performance space more than compensates.
“Worth the wait? Hell yeah as my mate Lincoln Durham would say, a sentiment echoed by performers and punters alike.”
For footage covering some of the highlights of this year’s festival go to: http://www.burntcandle.tv/BluesFestival2012/
Text, photos and footage by Dave Hammond
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