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Reviews / Dean and Arthur in fine voice at Muckle Roe

Dean Owens on stage at Muckle Roe Hall last night, with Arthur Nicholson - and a curious-looking fireplace - in the background.

EDINBURGH singer Dean Owens was back in Muckle Roe on Friday night, teaming up with isles favourite Arthur Nicholson to run through two sets mixing new material and songs from his burgeoning back catalogue.

The former Felsons frontman has been a regular visitor to these shores since first being invited to Shetland Folk Festival in the late nineties by Davie Henderson.

“My liver has never been the same since,” he informed the 50-strong crowd in Muckle Roe’s intimate hall, as he introduced ‘Northern Lights’ – a 2004 song inspired by “one of my favourite places”.

Nicholson opened the Shetland Arts-organised concert with his customary aplomb, reeling off some top-notch cuts from his ‘Sticks and Stones’ album, before hopping on stage as sideman for the bulk of Owens’ set.

The pair toured together a couple of years back, but had only been able to spend a mere 20 minutes or so rehearsing for Friday’s gig. That didn’t prevent Nicholson from adding some excellent harmonies and terrific fingerpicking over Owens’ rhythmic playing.

“He knows my songs better than I do,” Owens, a warm and engaging stage presence throughout, quipped.

Among the highlights of the duo’s pre-interval set were ‘Evergreen’ and ‘Valentine’s Day in New York’, both from Owens’ hot-off-the-press CD ‘Into the Sea’.

The album addresses some raw personal tragedies, including the deaths of close friends and his late sister’s battle with cancer, and on this evidence it appears to be a collection of well-crafted, reflective lyrics imbued with hope for the future.

Next up was wife-slaying song ‘Delia’s Gone’ – popularised in his later years by Johnny Cash and featured on Owens’ ‘Cash Back’ LP a couple of years back – before a spread of soup, sandwiches and sweets put on by the hall committee.

Owens has always doffed his flat cap to alternative country pioneers – Whiskeytown, Steve Earle and the like – across the pond, and that shone through even more strongly after the break, the warm Americana stylings of ‘Up on the Hill’ enhanced by Nicholson’s slide guitar.

A welcome trip down memory lane saw ‘What About Me’, a Felsons song played at the 1998 folk festival opening concert, dusted off and dedicated to the late Henderson. There was more fretboard wizardry from Nicholson and the first of several audience singalongs (and, later, even a bit of whistling).

The more up-tempo oldies dovetailed neatly with more reflective cuts from Owens’ solo catalogue such as ‘Man From Leith’ and ‘Raining in Glasgow’, and the singer was in very fine voice indeed for the duration.

With audience appreciation getting louder as the night wore on, the affable singer persuaded everyone to cheer rapturously at every blow of the harmonica – replicating the sort of response Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen get when they whip out the mouth organ.

  • Owens’ five-strong backing band the Whisky Hearts are due to fly into Shetland today for what promises to be a most enjoyable Saturday night’s entertainment at Mareel. Tickets are still available from Shetland Box Office, with support from the Sheila Henderson Band.

Neil Riddell