This weekend saw this summer’s second festival on the isle of Unst, this time the inaugural Shetland Reel at Saxa Vord. Davie Gardner braved the extreme weather to get a flavour of the first night.
As I motored my way north through the driving rain, I was spurred on by the hope that Shetland’s newest music festival – the inaugural Shetland Reel Music Festival on Unst – promised to be a welcome light at the end of a rather long, grey and unrelentingly dank tunnel.
It was certainly not the kind of weather the organisers, or those planning to camp out in Unst over the weekend, would have hoped for.
But hey, given that the larger part of the planned activities were due to take place indoors anyway, the summer downpour we have been experiencing should do little to dampen the spirits.
Up until this weekend, the ‘Shetland Reel’ brand has solely been applied to a rather fine local gin distilled on Unst and now, a single malt whisky due to be at least ‘bottled’ in Shetland in the not too distant future. So why a music festival too?
Festival organiser Lisa Ward tells me that Unst couple and business partners Frank and Debbie Strang behind the ‘Shetland Reel’ brand and the Saxa Vord resort which also acts as ‘home’ to the festival, have two passions – distilling and music.
“So not unlike T in the Park is associated with Tennents,” she says, “their desire is to have a music festival associated with their other products under the ‘Shetland Reel’ heading”.
Braving the ongoing downpour I first made my way to the Crew Room stage – being the more sedate, acoustic-based festival stage; a relatively gently way to bed myself in I believed. I was greeted by a smiling punter who, noting my already advanced state of dampness, greeted me with a cheery “So it’s still raining then”?
Impressive young female duo Wulver – who I haven’t actually heard before – are already on stage, followed by the equally impressive vocal group Tru Nort who hail from Unst.
Their sound is pretty much all I have to go on though – actually seeing them was another matter altogether, there being no elevated stage, so the musicians were performing at floor level.
Add to that large concrete roof supporting columns strategically located in the centre of the room, which in themselves partially impair the view to the stage area, and with pretty much standing room only being available, added to me not being blessed with the longest of legs to see over the taller people who needless to say are in front of me, it proves difficult to……well see pretty much any of the musical proceedings to be honest.
Moving onward, I headed out for another inevitable drenching and toward the main Shetland Reel stage. Briefly taking in the mature, funky, jazzy sounds of the excellent young band The FB who were now onstage there, I headed for the bar, but was immediately way-laid by the aroma’s emanating from a feeding area with a tempting sign that reads ‘Hog Roast’.
“Get your laughing gear around yon,” said the delicately intoned serving lady, handing me enough Bratwurst sausage to satisfy the most ravenous of hungers.
Next up on the main stage were the collective acts many have clearly been waiting for – the festival’s American contingent featuring festival curator Jim Salestrom – long time guitarist in Dolly Parton’s band no less – together with his son James and singer/songwriter Livingstone Taylor – younger brother of the legendary James Taylor.
James Salestrom junior, who clearly is quite a guitarist in his own right, delivers a full-on extended blues influenced rock-out, while the mellower country-infused tones and wonderfully precise guitar playing of his dad go down a storm, especially with the slightly older members of the audience.
The Taylor family genes and musical pedigree are clearly strong in Livingstone Taylor, who not only slightly resembles his older sibling, but in fact sounds a lot like him too.
His mainly mid-paced, thoughtful, wordy songs were marvellous, but before long, perhaps largely due to being unfamiliar to many, they tended to lose the attention of some elements of the Friday night audience – especially some of the younger members, who most likely had never heard of his perhaps more illustrious brother either.
It was clearly evident that the increasing level of background noise and chit-chat was annoying to those who wanted to pay a bit more reference to Livingstone’s excellent set. He however won back attention by doing an excellent cover, with supporting vocal and guitar accompaniment from the maestro Jim Salestrom, of one of James Taylor’s biggest hits Carolina in my Mind, quickly followed by a rendition of the Eagle’s super-hit Peaceful Easy Feeling.
Next up were more American visitors in the form of the genre defying Marley’s Ghost – who had been transferred to a main stage appearance from their intended headline slot on the Crew Stage. A very good decision indeed as it turned out!!
If audience attention needed grabbing back, Marley’s Ghost were undoubtedly the guys for the job. Although they collectively looked as though they would be equally at home onboard fishing boats or in farm fields back home in the USA, they were nothing short of a musical revelation – their multi-instrumental musicianship and beautifully harmonised vocals immediately appealing to both old and young alike.
Their hoedown style blend of uptempo country, blues, western swing and bluegrass, with even an accapella sea-shanty thrown in for good measure, deservedly attracted the most enthusiastic response of the night.
They have now been together for 25 years and amazingly their original line up hasn’t changed once in all that time. That tells its own story too – they are buddies as well as band members – and this factor clearly shone through in both the tightness and exuberance of their playing and performance. Mark my words these guys will have Unst well and truly won over before the weekend is out!!
If audience numbers visibly reduced after their set, the decibel count certainly didn’t, with incendiary sets to follow from local bands North Country Fair, Dirty Lemons and Scaldin’ Bragg. North Country Fair had the unenviable task of following Marley’s Ghost, but answered that particular challenge by delivering arguably the best live set they have ever played.
By this time the main stage programme had over-run by two hours from the festival’s published one – but hey who was complaining? However, after more than eight hectic and hugely enjoyable hours on my feet I elected to give the late night/early morning DJ the go-by and headed off into the still very wet night.
On the way back to my centrally heated bedroom I offered up a sympathetic thought for those camping, who it appeared will have to endure further rain laden assaults from the heavens before a forecasted improvement later on Saturday. Hopefully it will still have been a worthwhile experience for them.
For me anyway it was a terrific night of top drawer international and local music, and the vibe had indeed been good – with the local acts more than holding their own against some mighty talent from across the pond. It all bodes well for the remainder of the weekend that’s for sure and hopefully for the future of the Shetland Reel Music Festival too.
So, in this particular case, it appears that every cloud – especially the very rainy ones over Unst on Friday – does indeed have a silver lining.
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