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Reviews / Shetland…at its best

Salt on their brows, Saltfishforty's Douglas Montgomery and Brian Cromarty sounded like a sextet as they worked up a fiddle frenzy at Mareel on Thursday. Photo Chris Brown

Mareel’s auditorium was jam-packed on Thursday night when our reviewer Alex Garrick-Wright went along to witness another leg of this year’s Fiddle Frenzy.

The crowd were first treated to an all-too-short set from Young Fiddler of the Year Jasmin Smith from Bigton, who apparently had only had a few hours’ sleep since a gig in the Aith hall.

Not that anyone could have known; Jasmin’s YFOTY award was clearly well-deserved. Her fiddling was beautiful; complex and, well, ‘fiddly’ in parts, demonstrating a level of technical skill that some of the aspiring fiddlers who had come to visit would have found fascinating.

Jasmin was also a natural on stage, joking and chatting to the audience with the total confidence of a born performer.

Young fiddler of the year Jasmin Smith proved to be a natural performer. Photo Chris Brown

She was then joined by Eunice Henderson, who provided a wonderful keyboard accompaniment, and the biggest laugh of the night when Jasmin pointed out that her keyboard was not suffering a ‘technical difficulty’ but was, in fact, not switched on.

The duet of Eunice and Jasmin was captivating- not one mobile phone backlight to be seen, or quiet murmuring to be heard.

Many would have surely happily sat and listened to them all night, and most have probably seen headliners in other gigs who could not match up to this opening act.

Next on was Corran Raa, a quartet of Kath Bruce, Janet Lees, Jenny Smith and Shetlander Robbie Leask, who informed the audience that they would be playing their repertoire of Shetland tunes in honour of being back in the isles for their second Fiddle Frenzy.

Their music was lively, and full of energy, and enthusiastically received by the grateful audience.

The audience could have used a dance floor when Corran Raa took to the stage. Photo Chris Brown

The only negative about their set was that there was no dancefloor- judging from the toe-tapping and seat-bobbing, a dancefloor would have been put through it’s paces by Corran Raa’s Fat Puffin Reel.

In true Shetland music festival style, they played a couple of new tunes, written the night before in a beer-induced haze in a country hall.

The rapturous applause that followed their set should hopefully ensure they return for a third Fiddle Frenzy at some point, preferably soon.

After the stampede to the bar at the interval, the crowd resettled for Saltfishforty, the duo of Douglas Montgomery and Brian Cromarty, who capped off an already stellar night.

Saltfishforty show how it's done. Photo Chris Brown

If there was anyone left in the audience who wasn’t already convinced this had been a great evening, these two will have left them in no doubt.

If you closed your eyes and listened, you could fully think Saltfishforty was comprised of a half-dozen musicians fiddling their hearts out, instead of two guys playing away with casual ease and sipping beer.

Douglas and Brian joked and yarned to the crowd, who by now must have felt less like an audience and more like they were at the same party as some really world-class musicians.

That became the case after Saltfishforty’s set, when everyone rolled out into the bar to jam away until the wee hours, which was almost as enjoyable as the gig itself (and the part many people look forward to most).

On Thursday night, Mareel felt like it somehow changed into a little country hall; the atmosphere was wonderfully warm and friendly, with a kind of intimacy about the proceedings that is normally impossible in a large, seated auditorium.

All the musicians joked and chatted merrily away to the crowd, and there was a tremendous sense of that laid-back charm that Shetland is so well known for.

There were surely visitors and tourists in that audience who decided that Shetland was the place for them, and will be looking at houses for sale as soon as they return home, eager to move up and find more of that Shetland warmth (and then probably move back down when it gets to February, they haven’t seen the sun for four months, and realise that they didn’t think this through properly).

It’s nights like Thursday night which give the absolute best sense of Shetland. The sort of night you can’t put in a tourist brochure, or properly describe to a friend later on; the sort of night you have to experience for yourself.

If you missed it this year, then don’t worry; Shetland is one of the few places in the world where great nights- like this- are just another Thursday night.

Alex Garrick-Wright