“AMERICAN roots, Michigan soul, Tennessee ties… [a] finger-pickin’, harmony slingin’, tight-knit family fashion conglomeration” is how Lindsay Lou describes the music she and her band the Flatbellys play.
If you were to take a DNA sample of Shetland Folk Festival, it’s certain that back porch acoustic bluegrass would feature among its genes. And, after a few listens to Lindsay Lou and her cohorts’ latest album ‘Ionia’, it seems equally safe to assume they’ll win plenty of new fans this weekend.
Created live around a few vintage microphones in Michigan last autumn, the instrument-swapping four-piece’s newest, overdub-free work provides the perfect vehicle for frontwoman Lindsay Lou’s sweet vocal delivery.
Speaking to Shetland News at the weekend, she said the sheer distance the band is travelling to get here – a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles followed by the same journey time again on the ferry from Aberdeen – is “tantamount to our excitement to be there”.
Two weeks into a nine-week jaunt in support of ‘Ionia’, the group should be warmed up nicely and, with original material as strong as ‘Criminal Style’ and ‘House Together’, they seem built to succeed.
For the live show, expect plenty of on-stage instrument trades as the musicians switch between bass, mandolin, guitar, harmonica, guitar and cajon – along with “some silly antics and a heartfelt delivery”.
The band have “a lot of steam behind us with the new record” and a new US tour bus, named Pearl, to boot: “It’s a shuttle bus, which we converted to run on waste vegetable oil (a near zero carbon footprint) and renovated to include bunks to lay down in… The future is ahead of us and the world is our oyster.”
The term “Americana” has become so all-pervasive it’s hard to know exactly what it means in 2015, but acoustic roots and bluegrass sounds from across the pond are again strongly represented on the bill for the 35th annual folkie gathering.
For her part, and it’s probably as valid a definition as any, Lindsay Lou describes Americana as “the voice of those among our generation who look to those who came before us to inform where we’re going”.
Newcomer to the folk festival committee Lewie Peterson, no slouch on the banjo and mandolin himself, says he can see why the genre is so popular, but can’t quite put his finger on why.
“I always find the type of bands Shetlanders crave more at festival time are the bluegrass and North American-style bands. I am not really sure why – maybe it’s because there’s been really lively and memorable acts in the past, but I can’t hep thinking there’s something Shetlanders find accessible to the music more than other genres, or that there’s some sort of deeper connection with what we have here – no idea what though.”
Two of the Americana world’s most subtle and innovative roots players, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, are also making their maiden performances in Shetland.
A recent review termed them as “artists that other artists run to see at a festival… their music seems effortlessly simple, but is complex enough to engage us far beyond the usual way we listen to roots music”.
West has actually visited the festival once before to find out what the fuss was all about. He’d heard rave reviews from Tim O’Brien (who produced Cahalen & Eli’s 2014 album ‘I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands’) and his sister Molly, who is also returning for her third helping of the festival.
“It was a wonderful weekend, such a cohesive and comrade-like environment,” West says. “With those reviews I decided to come even though I wasn’t playing and I had a wonderful time as a spectator.
“I was coming off a tour, and very tired, even sick, but I still managed to muster energy to have a great time.”
He and Morrison have performed together for five years. Listening to ‘I’ll Swing My Hammer…’, it’s clear there is a truly intuitive understanding between the pair’s playing, and West reckons it “probably took six months to get used to what the other person had to say musically”.
There is something compelling in the understated interplay they weave, which West puts down to “a scarcity to a duo that turns out to provide creative leverage. Negative space, implied timing and harmony, those are tools that I love to employ”.
West is fully confident that his partner in crime has the stamina to last a full weekend of Shetland in party mode. In addition to sharing their own music, he’s hoping to sing a song or two with Molly O’Brien, and also keen to see, hear and catch up with Ahlberg, Ek & Roswall and Flook.
“I’m especially excited to drink with Daniel Ek,” he adds. “You can tell him so.”
O’Brien and her guitarist husband Rich Moore have a trio of shows – at Clickimin on Friday, North Roe on Saturday and the Shetland Hotel on Sunday. Her previous visits with Tim came in 1997 and 2006.
While also ploughing that “Americana” furrow, she isn’t afraid to throw in tinges of gospel, jazz and R&B, while their between-song craic is reckoned to be among the best around.
Folk festival publicity officer Louise Johnson feels the Americana-leaning artists will offer real entertainment.
“We are delighted to be showcasing three outstanding acts from the USA this year, who will perform a variety of Americana sounds and styles,” she says. “The genre has always proved to be a real crowd pleaser with local audiences, and I hope our American artistes enjoy Shetland and the folk festival as much as our festival-goers will undoubtedly enjoy them.”
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