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Folk Festival 2015 / Chisholm’s fiddle playing takes breath away

Jarlath Henderson, Duncan Chisholm and Matheu Watson. Photo: Chris Brown.

ARRIVING to a jam packed Skeld Hall for Saturday night’s folk festival concert I was reminded how important the efforts  of the local committees are in making the festival run smoothly when, no chairs in sight, I was found an extra one by some helpful hall hands and installed at the back of the room, ready for the night’s music.

First on were young local instrumental duo Shaun and Iwan playing a mixture of tunes and songs on guitar, mandolin and ukelele.

Seemingly unfazed with the task of opening the gig, they ran through a set which included traditional Shetland and Orkney reels, gypsy jazz tunes and even a warmly received take on Disney’s King of the Swingers and Bear Necessities. An original, funk laden tune Stevie’s written by Shau and Iwan for Stevie Wonder was included before the polite pair ended their stint with a round of thank-yous for everyone from former teachers to the audience themselves.

Frank Yamma, the second artist on the bill, is the perfect example of all I love about the festival. The indigenous Australian is an act I may never have heard, but unexpectedly became one of the highlights of my weekend.

His spellbinding self penned songs were sung with soulful vocals, and accompanied by rootsy guitar, and often heartbreaking imagery – for example on ‘She Cried’ – they had a powerful impact.  Dark moments were however lifted with fine finger picking and beautiful melodies, and there was a touch of Paul Weller about the last tune, to my ears, at least.

Also slightly unexpected was the full cowboy get up of third act, the Lost Highway Ensemble. The band, featuring cajon, double bass, banjo and guitar and local man Drew Robertson got the crowd clapping along to their blend of classic country hits by the likes of Bill Monroe and Hank Williams.

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After a short break, fiddler Duncan Chisholm took to the stage accompanied by Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes and Matheu Watson on guitar.

The trio had me utterly transfixed. Chisholm’s playing on the breathtaking unnamed slow air known simply as ‘Number 106’ is simply unparalleled, while the precise, sensitive accompaniment and clever arrangements on tunes such as ‘Craskie’, written for the fiddler’s family home, made for a truly magical set.

While that act could be seen as a vehicle for Chisholm’s musical vision of swelling slow airs, the final band of the night, Flook, are very much a collaborative musical union.

Last at the festival 17 years ago, the four piece opened with a lively set of reels, the low whistle and flute from Brian Finnegan and Sarah Allen backed perfectly by guitar and bodhran.

Not usually an instrument I would necessarily notice in its own right, John Joe Kelly’s adept and inventive percussion took the tunes to another level, joining forces with the guitar of Ed Boyd to almost become one instrument and create a sound that is distinctive and very exciting.

It’s can be a struggle – though not a very serious one – to think of a way to praise the festival gigs without sounding gushy, but both the programming and quality of the acts this year has been sublime. So I’ll just gush… a big well done to all involved.

Louise Thomason

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