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Folk Festival 2014 / Audiences beguiled by diverse festival offering

Local singer Arthur Nicholson more than held his own at the Legion on Friday.

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WITH over 5,500 concert tickets sold and everything from swing jazz to traditional Native American dancing nestling on the bill alongside the usual complement of fiddles, it seems safe to declare the 34th Shetland Folk Festival another soaraway success.

Inevitably given the diversity on show it would be hard to find any consensus on the favourite visiting act of the weekend.

Depending on your personal predilection it might have been the oak-aged vocals of 23 year old Scot Adam Holmes; high energy Manitoban dance group Asham Stompers; soul-saving gospel band The Sojourners; the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli stylings of Rose Room; the superlative musicianship and adventurous spirit of American trio Haas Kowert Tice and Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc, or the return of Canadian roots favourites Madison Violet.

BBC economics editor Robert Peston, certainly not the most obvious choice, was given the honour of declaring the festival open on Thursday afternoon. There ensued four days of classy live music and merry-making with some 45 events featuring the 16 visiting and nearly 50 local acts taking place across the islands.

One of the festival organisers, Mhari Pottinger, said the weekend had gone “really well” with “exceptional” ticket sales. “The feedback from regular festival-goers is that it’s been absolutely brilliant,” she told Shetland News on Monday.

“The standard of bands has been really high across the board, both visiting and local, and folk seem to have enjoyed the different dimensions that we added in.”

Among her highlights was three hours of high-octane dancing at Clickimin on Friday night courtesy of the mighty Revellers and their ever popular Orcadian counterparts The Chair.

Haas Kowert Tice, whose adventurous craft certainly delivered one of the highlights at South Nesting on Thursday, were “technically brilliant and so unique”, Pottinger said.

While some of their astoundingly good album ‘You Got This’ might be a touch esoteric for mainstream audiences, their set was broken up with the inclusion of some more traditional bluegrass material.

The group’s double bassist, Paul Kowert, is a member of critically adored, boundary-pushing bluegrass experimentalists The Punch Brothers – renewing hopes that his other group might find their way to these shores one day too.

Meanwhile another group folk were “raving about” was Rose Room, Pottinger continued – they received a standing ovation at Bressay Hall.

“The Asham Stompers were a different dimension, taking over a dance troupe, and they seemed to get a big cheer,” she said. “But on the whole everybody’s really happy with the diversity and standard of musicianship.”

Pottinger paid tribute to the continued efforts of other committee members, volunteers, accommodation hosts and drivers “and of course the local artists who are performing for virtually nothing – they just get a free club membership”.

It was a source of pride, she said, to see local singer-songwriter Arthur Nicholson comfortably holding his own among exalted company at Friday night’s Legion concert.

“He was just outstanding. If he wants to do it he could go quite far. That’s the kind of thing that makes you feel really proud. It’s great to bring an exciting array of bands to Shetland, and when you see local ones equalling them if not better, you can’t help but smile.”

Pottinger added that the loss of committee stalwart Davie Henderson meant it had been a “really hard year”. “But we think that Davie would have been proud of us and the festival that was delivered to the Shetland community and everyone who came here for the festival.”

REVIEW: Singing Concert at Mareel (featuring Adam Holmes and the Embers, Madison Violet and The Sojourners)

Sunday afternoon’s singing concert – transported from the Shetland Hotel to Mareel’s main auditorium – is often a favourite for this writer and this year is no exception.

The timeless timber of Adam Holmes' voice won many fans over the weekend. Photo: Chris Brown

A slightly bleary-eyed Adam Holmes kicked things off with the languid precision of songs from his terrific debut album Heirs and Graces. It was produced by the legendary John Wood, who has previously taken on knob-twiddling duties for albums by John Martyn, Nick Drake and Richard Thompson.

Released last autumn, it was a record which late committee member Davie Henderson was very fond of. Fittingly Holmes dedicates ‘I Can’t Be Right’ (a song penned aged just 16) to the man who had invited the group to this year’s festival just a few weeks before he passed away.

“This losing game’s harder to win,” Holmes intones in a timeless timber, demonstrating a rare emotional depth both lyrically and vocally, to impeccably restrained backing from the stellar cast of musicians in his band The Embers.

There is a brooding, foreboding quality to the piano motif to ‘Oh My God’, the words dwelling on mortality, before the group deploy ‘Autumn Leaves’, perhaps the most upbeat thing in his arsenal.

Final song ‘Mother Oak’ sees the band vacate the stage, leaving Holmes and his superb guitarist Paul Gilbody to deliver a glimmering meditation on the simple pleasures of drinking (“probably the last thing we want to be doing right now”).

Then it’s time for 2009 festival favourites and peddlers of acoustic country pop Madison Violet. The tight harmonies and heart-wrenching songs from that year’s LP ‘No Fool For Trying’ won the hearts of Shetland audiences five years ago.

Singer songwriters Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac were again joined by bassist Adrian Lawryshyn, this time adding multi-instrumentalist Christine Bougie on lap steel and occasionally drums.

While the duo’s harmonies are present and correct, a couple of the new songs don’t quite have the emotional resonance of earlier material, though ‘Trouble’ – with its synths, drums and gritty electric guitars – succeeds in beefing up their trademark Americana sound.

‘Home’, from 2011’s ‘Good in Goodbye’ album, is touchingly dedicated to Henderson who first brought Madison Violet to Shetland, in the process introducing them to “every type of Scotch imaginable”.

But it’s still the brace of songs from ‘No Fool For Trying’ that hit the spot: the heart-wrenchingly honest ‘Woodshop’, addressing the tragic death of MacEachern’s brother, and set closer ‘Laura Lee’, reworked into a barroom country shuffle to fine effect.

The Sojourners offered some powerful gospel standards. Photo; Davie Gardner

With the lunchtime coffees and beers beginning to take effect, it’s time for American gospel singers The Sojourners to save the souls of those who missed da kirk. Which, to be honest, was probably much of the audience.

While I don’t especially care for being preached to, compared to the decade of stuffy, po-faced pious sermons I had to endure as a child, the gospel trio and their meaty band have the distinct advantage of making Christianity seem like fun.

Civil rights-era standards ‘Eyes on the Prize’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’ (written by Dylan and perfected by The Band) press home the cause of social justice, fairness and equality, and the latter prompts an audience singalong. 

The Sojourners’ reading of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ is so joyous and harmonic that its religious overtones surely wouldn’t bother even the staunchest of atheists.

The powerful ‘Strange Men’, complete with 1950s-era rock’n’roll guitar solo, brings another superb singing concert to a buoyant ending.

Neil Riddell

For our comprehensive folk festival coverage go to http://www.shetnews.co.uk/features/folk-festival-2014/