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Reviews / Instant familiarity

AFTER reviewing some of last weekend’s Shetland Folk Festival concerts, local promoter and music enthusiast Davie Gardner was longing for more traditional tunes. Here is his verdict on Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag’s new CD 500 Sessions, launched during the festival.

It usually takes folk longer to learn to pronounce the name Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag correctly than to realise that they are quite simply one of Shetland’s most vivacious and, yes, downright talented musical acts.

But let’s come back to that. First, for those not already in the ‘know’, let’s deal with that pronunciation challenging, tongue-twisting band name.

As it happens the name is entirely descriptive of the bands construction and indeed the music to make – Fullsceilidh being a bringing together of the words full scale and ceilidh, while Spelemannslag is a Norwegian word for a group or loose gathering of musicians who “play the fiddle and other instruments”. So there you have it folks!

Appropriate indeed, as here the band are not only spearheaded by their usual five-pronged fiddle assault, courtesy of Maurice Henderson (who also plays mandolin and melodeon), Ewen Thomson (who also plays banjo), Lois Nicol, Stewart Grains and Helen Whitham – their 500 Sessions line up is further augmented by fiddlers Ross Couper and Mark Laurenson. Add to that Grant Nicol (guitar, bass drone mandola and mandolin), Peter Wood (piano), John Clark (bass guitar, upright bass, tenor banjo and mandolin) and Davie Jamieson (drums and percussion) and what you have is less a group and more a fired-up traditional music ensemble.       

So back now to 500 Sessions – their long awaited, much anticipated second CD – and the follow up to their hugely successful debut Spreefix.

Suffice to say that the album has had a significant gestation period, during which the band locked themselves away in inspirational hidey-holes such as Belmont House, in Unst, to record at their leisure and allow this particular musical monster to slowly mutate.

So, do they still live up to their title given that so many other artists appear to grapple unsuccessfully with that ‘difficult second album’ syndrome? The answer to that particular question is a resounding YES, they most certainly do!

The ingredients that have gone into creating the 500 Sessions mix are perhaps not entirely unexpected – reels, jigs, polkas and all manner of influences from around the world feature in profusion, peppered throughout by several moments of sheer musical beauty.

As you might expect the opening track Craa Dang Pussy literally flies out of the traps at a furious pace, while the following track Spreefix (somewhat strangely the title of their debut album) has more twists, turns and speed variations than a single track Shetland country road.

 On the whole these two tracks pretty much set the tone for the whole album. Indeed the band rarely pause to catch breath until the fifth track – the beautiful Cavers set – but even then you almost feel they are barely restraining themselves.

As with their debut here again they cross a myriad of musical horizons on their voyage – Scottish, English, Irish, Scandinavian, French Canadian, American and of course Shetland traditional tunes are all conquered with apparent ease and dexterity, while the playing is dynamically breathtaking throughout, all tightly bound together with finely crafted and well thought out arrangements.

Another strong point is the album’s near instant familiarity, given that over its previously mentioned gestation period many of the tracks have been regularly aired in the band’s blistering live sets.

The closing track Dreamers, a waltz featuring only John on mandolin and Grant on bass drone mandolin, is not only a subliminal and understated conclusion but perhaps also a fitting one, especially after all the musical energy previous expended.

There are quite simply no weak points in the Fullsceilidh team, who with 500 Sessions comfortably laugh in the face of the ‘difficult second album’ theorists. All in all, another quite wonderful piece of work – and, yes, well worth the wait.

500 Sessions is now on sale in local record shops and from www.spreefix.com