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Folk Festival 2013 / Stirring souls in Voe

Son Yambu singer Yuri Moreno Soria in her gravity-defying shoes wanted folk dancing on the tables at Voe Hall. Maybe she'll get her way by the end of the weekend. Photo Olivia Abbott

The first evening of the Shetland Folk Festival presented an eclectic mix of musical styles at Voe Public Hall on Thursday night, reports Olivia Abbott, who is experiencing the four days of musical mayhem for the very first time.

From Shetland-inspired country and western to traditional Danish waltzes, with a bit of Cuban salsa and Nova Scotian banjo picking thrown in, all culminating in an Irish bodhran extravaganza, it was an evening that took us around the world and through a multitude of musical styles.

One minute we were humming along with the Fionia Stringband to a piece of Danish classical music, the next we were stomping our feet and clapping to Old Man Luedecke’s clawhammer-style banjo picking.

Country & Northern start the evening fronted by the "slightly bumbling", but rich, warm voiced Malachy Tallack. Photo Olivia Abbott

The evening started with local four-piece Country & Northern, doing their own, Shetland take on country and western. They’re fronted by Malachy Tallack, whose disarming, slightly bumbling stage presence broke any little ice there might have been.

The band performed a mix of covers and songs written by Tallack himself, all sung with feeling in his rich, warm voice. The best was saved till last – a new song, performed for the first time, and no, it wasn’t a stupid decision, as Tallack feared, to play it.

The trouble with all-seater venues is that you can’t really get up and dance. Nonetheless, Son Yambu got everybody twitching in their seats with their feelgood, authentic Cuban ‘son’ – the precursor to salsa.

Singer Yuri Moreno Soria – dancing herself in a pair of awesome, gravity-defying shoes – urged the crowd to get up on the tables and join in. With whistling, maracas, steel drums and congas, the five-piece brought the heat of Cuba to a chilly Shetland evening.

Old Man Luedecke's banjo playing made up for the cheesy banter. Photo Olivia Abbott

Old Man Luedecke, bearded but baby-faced in his flat cap and overstitched denim jacket, lamented his fate to be an ‘old-time banjo picker in 2013’. Probably a good job, then, he didn’t realise his original ambition – at the age of 16 he discovered a record of one Franzl Lang and decided he wanted to be a yodeller.

Lucky for the audience in Voe, too, who thorougly enjoyed his banjo-playing style and his quirky, slightly barmy songs. He had that North American tendency to err occasionally on the cheesy side, but there was nothing cheesy about his banjo playing.

Back again, Danish fiddler Jes Kroman with Fionia Stringband, featuring the best piano player in Denmark. Photo Olivia Abbott

Then we headed back to Europe, as Danish trio the Fionia Stringband came on stage. Clearly having an absolutely great time, these three virtuoso musicians treated us to a set of traditional Danish polkas, waltzes and mazurkas. With flowing fiddle strokes, the tunes got faster and faster, but pianist Theis Juul Langlands wasn’t to be left behind.

I spoke to folk festival veteran Jes Kroman of the band last week, and he said that in his opinion Langlands is the best piano player in Denmark. I’ve no idea what the standard of Danish piano playing is like, but I think he could be right.

I have been thrilled by the sound of the bodhrán ever since I saw four times All-Ireland bodhrán champion Eamon Murray of Beoga doing a solo at Cambridge Folk Festival. Even the jaded old hands at Cambridge were left open-mouthed at his skill, bursting into footstomping, yelling applause as he finished.

Niamh Ni Charra Band with the bodhran of Dominic Keogh. Photo Olivia Abbott

So I was hoping for a bit of a show from Dominic Keogh of the Niamh Ni Charra band, who rounded off the night. I wasn’t disappointed – and, judging by their reaction, neither were the rest of the audience.

We’d already heard some pretty impressive fiddling and fluting, not to mention Matthew Griffin’s guitar playing – which included a fair bit of good-old-fashioned emphatic strumming as contrast to Luedecke’s picking – but there is something elemental and primal about the bodhrán that just stirs the soul of anybody who has a soul to be stirred.

And the souls in Voe were definitely wobbling after an evening of great music last night.

Please follow our extensive coverage of the 2013 Shetland Folk Festival at: www.shetnews.co.uk/features/folk-festival-2013/