There’s always something a bit special about Shetland’s country halls. Maybe it’s the community spirit, the homeliness or the out-in-the-sticks remoteness – or maybe it’s the cheap tins of lager…
Either way, the folk festival always uses the rural hubs to maximum effect and on Thursday night, after probably weeks of sitting dormant and twiddling its thumbs, the South Nesting Hall got a chance to shine.
Local singer-songwriter Keirynn Topp shouldered the opening slot burden with assured confidence as his soulful pipes reverberated his velvet-lined voice around the four walls.
It was more Ed Sheeran-flavoured acoustic pop than folk – covers such as Paolo Nutini’s premier footwear anthem New Shoes proved popular – and with original cuts that flirted with melancholy, there were more than enough contrasting colours to see past the contemporary sheen.
Within minutes Scottish folk duo Mairearad and Anna had bumbled on stage, gallivanting through a compelling set of part folk music, part stand-up comedy jamboree with a slew of sharp-tongued stories, including one tale about how she was saved from near death by a plain-clothed lollipop man in Glasgow’s West End.
The tunes were just about as beguiling, with T-Shirts in March showcasing adroit accordion work and giving rise to one of Shetland crowds’ worst fears: audience participation. Thankfully South Nesting was in the mood, clapping and singing along to temporarily become an honorary third member of the group.
It’s time for a “musical palate cleanser”, the duo later quipped as the dreaded bagpipes were brought out – but even an ear-numbing drone from the most Marmite of instruments that sounded like a Northlink ferry’s horn stuck on loop after taking a gulp of helium didn’t dampen the spirits.
Up next was local four-piece Vair – introduced as “Shetland’s own boyband” – who rallied though blitzkrieg bouts of instrumental folk frenzy. Brotherly duo Lewie and Erik Peterson riffed off the dual acoustic guitar work on the banjo and mandolin and the group swapped solos like they were playing pass the parcel to 140bpm backing music.
It wasn’t all high-octane stuff, with moments of reflection and grace sprinkled into the mix. Their set was all the more poignant due to their links with the late Davie Henderson, with Vair dedicating their entire performance to the festival dynamo.
Musically, however, the group were at their best when rampaging and rollicking, with percussion often building up like a roller coaster towards its peak before speeding off again.
Hard cheese then to instrumental trio Haas, Kowert & Tice, who had to follow Vair – but they did so superbly, with loose structures and curious chord progressions giving off an improvisational vibe.
Fiddler Brittany Haas’ nimble noteplay took a different path from other bow-meisters and the US trio – playing their first ever gig outside their home country – echoed double bass player Paul Kowert’s day job band the Punch Brothers with some out-of-the-box thinking.
Possibly the highlight of the night came as the triumvirate ran through Kowert’s ‘The Switchback Games’ to finish, a track which dipped toes into progressive realms, meandering through film score-esque crepuscular passages and offbeat guitar work.
The festival is well known for enticing exotic acts from overseas, and it is Mariachi Tequila’s turn to give Shetland audiences something different this year.
The foursome were kitted out to the nines – or should I say nueves – with hats the size of miniature UFOs and a gargantuan acoustic bass guitar that’s probably too big for the BFG.
Plentiful use of the trumpet and a bellowing Mariachi vocal meant that if you closed your eyes, you almost forgot about cans of Tennent’s, the word ‘Nesting’ and raffle ticket regret as you were transported to the streets of Mexico. Almost.
A jaunty cover of The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ caused this London-based act to tread dangerously close to novelty territory, but come closing time the audience had lapped it up, and, for a few minutes, just about everyone in the room truly were amigos.
I didn’t see any tequila raised to the foursome come the end of their set – maybe because it was a Thursday night – but the punters went home happy and even more eager to sniff out the rest of the folk festival’s smorgasbord of talent this weekend.
For our comprehensive folk festival coverage go to http://www.shetnews.co.uk/features/folk-festival-2014/