“Thank you Shelby Islands,” rallied The Lone Bellow’s lead singer Zach Williams at the finale of their gig at Lerwick’s Mareel on Thursday.
The sold-out audience looked perplexed, faces gurned inwards; Shelby – where’d he get that from?
Had he been watching too much of the The Simpsons and confused our very own Shetland with the fictional town of Shelbyville?
But you could understand why the singer and guitarist’s brain was a bit frazzled. Williams was left exhausted in an ocean of sticky sweat after guiding the Brooklyn band through one of the most affecting, rousing sets Mareel has seen in recent years.
It was up to locals Megan and Lauren to open the night, but the Yell duo barely broke their own sweat as they calmly took an acoustic guitar foundation and topped it with dollops of ethereal vocal harmonies.
Tunes like the original Courage and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s iconic Go Your Own Way impressed, with the latter featuring a striking solo from guest guitarist Peter Kay, who elicited the first ‘whoops’ of the night. Locals done good, then.
Following was Newcastle’s Rob Heron – best known as the guiding light from his Tea Pad Orchestra band, a Shetland Folk Festival favourite – who brought a bluesy twang to the stage with some seriously assured songwriting.
“I don’t do this often by myself,” warned Heron, but the crowd lapped up his solo set, with the Mareel PA giving his flexible vocal chops a crystal-clear sheen that enveloped the wide-eyed audience.
Cutting a figure that resembled a trim Elvis with a hint of Reservoir Dogs tough guy Michael Madsen, Heron – who is staying in the isles to experience Up Helly Aa on Tuesday – ploughed through tunes like the alluring Something Blue, while a yodel-tastic Lonely Boy on The Dole Queue – a modified version of Lonely Boy on The Prairie – paid tribute to one of Shetland’s very own.
“I learnt this from a Thomas Fraser recording,” he said.
The rock and roll gusto of Hundreds of Miles was a perfect precursor to The Lone Bellow, who seeped on stage in front of an expectant crowd.
Shetland has hit above its weight recently when it comes these kind of nu-folk gigs; US heroes Punch Brothers sent fans home with truly sore pupils after an eye-popping show last year, while there’s also been the likes of visiting acts Jason Isbell and Admiral Fallow, who were also hosted by the night’s organisers Ragged Wood.
The Lone Bellow, however, rank up there, with their slot – the first date of a European tour – a triumphant cocktail of unashamed melody, succulent harmonies and driving rhythms.
The reflective, meditative opener I Let You Go acted as a warm-up for what was to come, with If You Don’t Love Me introducing nods to the likes of Led Zeppelin with added crunch.
The true sparkle of The Lone Bellow, however, came through the core trio of Williams, mandolin and bass player Kanene Donehey Pipkin and guitarist Brian Elmquist, who traded pitch-perfect harmonies with aplomb throughout.
Williams was the lynchpin, propelling the show with a bellowing voice – pun very much intended – and striking each syllable as if his very existence depended on it.
He sweated out his inner emotions, cheekbones and brow glazed, while the blushing women in the front couple of rows simultaneously melted, their Fitbit wristbands likely showing an abnormal upsurge in heart rate.
Despite the alluring frontman performance, the rest of the band shined; Donehey Pipkin was an celestial presence, ghosting between mandolin, bass and keyboards, while guitarist Elmquist upped the rock with some galvanising solo work.
There were a series of smoothed-out tracks performed by the threesome around a centre microphone, such as the serene Watch Over Us and the female-vocal led Call To War, but it was the rocked-up numbers that truly impressed.
The infectious, groove-ridden The One You Should’ve Let Go was a highlight, the fidgety audience imprisoned by their seats as feet tapped and hands clapped, while their full-band sound often echoed a latter-day Mumford & Sons or a folked-up Springsteen.
“I will work my hands till they bleed,” mused Williams, and it was pretty apt, judging by his cathartic purges – and the band broke two guitar strings in their 90 minute set too as they performed with passion.
“We must come back,” he gushed at the start of The Lone Bellow’s encore, which roused the giddy crowd, but you got the feeling anything he said would be lapped up by the hundreds in the auditorium.
Even his Shelby Islands comment, which was laughed off. At least he didn’t say Orkney…
It was up to Then Came the Morning to end, a soulful folk n’ roll number which gave a nod to gospel, before the instruments were laid to rest and the tune died out with a cappella vocals from the group – and the congregation in front of them.
It was just the five band members from Brooklyn, and the Lerwick audience conjoined as one. By the time the instant standing ovation sprung, Shetland had just found its new favourites.
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