THERE was an air of buzzing anticipation in Lerwick on Thursday afternoon as the 36th Shetland Folk Festival kicked off in typically busy fashion with its opening concert, writes Chris Cope.
The audience’s respective weekends started a day early as 15 visiting acts hit the stage at a bustling Room 16 in Islesburgh to show off their sounds.
Glasgow outfit Rose Room opened the free concert with a bang as they brought some gypsy jazz hues to the fore.
Only having five minutes to show off what you can do didn’t deter the likes of Canadian trio The East Pointers, who got the floor bouncing with some rousing trad tunes.
Out in Islesburgh’s mid-level seating area – where many booze-fuelled late night sessions have been held over the years – musicians and punters mingled as excitement for the weekend began to simmer.
Back in Room 16, bluegrass and Americana band The Railsplitters showed why they are one of the most anticipated acts of the festival, while rising Scots The Elephant Sessions exuded groove and a rock ethos.
It was left to French-Canadian folksters De Temps Antan to round things off, with the trio showing off some rootsy vocal work and toe-tapping tunes.
Among the most impressive acts of the opening concert were Flemish band Wör, who re-imagine 18th century Belgian folk tunes.
Baritone saxophone player Fabio Di Meo was making his first trip to Shetland and he anticipates some rowdy sessions ahead over the weekend.
“I’m very excited to be in Shetland,” he said. “I’m really glad to come over and play here – it’s the first time for us.
“We also know other bands here, so we’re looking forward to playing with other musicians and also making new connections – as well as showing our music to the rest of Shetland.”
Festival committee member Lewie Peterson praised the strength of the line-up, which includes acts from north America and Ireland.
“I’ve just heard nearly all the bands do at least one number, and it really gives you a taste of what’s to come,” he said.
“I think this concert has shown us that there’s not really a weak act. I had a few bands in mind that I wanted to see, but I’d love to hear more of all of them now.”
It’s becoming one of those phrases oft-uttered by Shetland locals; soon it’ll be up there with likes of “P&O would have sailed in this”, or in a force ten, “bit windy da day”. Indeed, “Mareel was made for gigs like this” is slowly beginning to enter common parlance in these isles.
It seems the Shetland Folk Festival has found a snug home in the Lerwick venue, and its first concert of 2016 was most definitely befitting of Mareel’s grand expanse and high quality sound.
Five acts, three visiting and two local – and a raffle, of course.
It was up to Shetland collective Da Loose Ends to open, with venerable guitarist and vocalist Norman ‘Girsie’ Goudie guiding his band of esteemed musicians through an engrossing cocktail of swing, jazz and bebop.
Age-old tracks and smooth covers of the likes of Duke Ellington made you ponder just why this quintet don’t play more often in the isles.
The first visiting act to perform under Mareel’s cosy draped lighting was Gordon Gunn, Brian McAlpine & Friends, a quartet of Scottish musicians from who have performed with the likes of Session A9 and Capercaillie.
They juggled waltzes and reels, with mainman Gunn at times issuing a blitzkrieg of notes on the fiddle as the tempo sizzled.
Making their folk festival debut were local sextet Rhonda May B’s, who have previously performed at the Thomas Fraser memorial show.
Led by the succulent harmonies of Rhonda Simpson and festival committee member Mhari Pottinger, there were knee-slappin’ country-tinged covers of acts like James Taylor and Kacey Musgraves.
Sheesham and Lotus & ‘Son, however, took things in an entirely different – and utterly absorbing – direction.
The Ontario old-time trio, decked to the nines in waistcoats and braces, ramped up the kooky theatrics as they huddled around a solitary microphone, playing up to the crowd and using instruments ranging from a gargantuan sousaphone to a kazoo as they stripped back the decades.
“We’ve only been here for 12 hours and we love you guys already,” proclaimed banjo player Lotus Wight, and judging by the giddy crowd response, the feeling was most definitely mutual.
The night was rounded off by polished Scots, Canadian and Irish fivesome The Outside Track, who lorded the stage with trad music-turned-contemporary and a serious amount of cheek-tiring smiles.
Tracks like Set You Free veered dangerously towards cheesy pop territory, but there was enough rousing folk in the set to send the sold-out crowd home happy – and eager to take in the rest of the weekend.
Youthful soul-jazz quartet Misbehavin were first on stage at a packed Voe Hall, writes Neil Riddell. Fronted by bassist and singer Joanne Tait, they boast current young musician of the year Amy Laurenson as one of two keyboard players, and the quartet breezed enthusiastically through a pleasing set of standards including ‘Black Magic Woman’ (popularised by Santana) and concluding with a favourite of Nina Simone’s, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’.
Scottish trad trio Talisk have been garlanded with gongs recognising the strength of their Irish/Scottish-influenced tunes. Virtuoso musician Mohsen Amini somewhat implausibly, being an Anglo-Iranian Glaswegian, finds himself winning awards for playing Irish music on the concertina.
With Amini teaming up with superb fiddler Hayley Keenan and driving guitarist Craig Irving, it’s easy to see why they picked up a BBC Radio 2 folk award last year. After a pedal-to-the-metal pair of opening sets, Talisk settled into a beguiling groove that doffs its cap to Lau and others on the more experimental end of the trad spectrum.
Everyone thought local boyband Vair had been reduced to a trio for now due to percussionist Erik Peterson’s penchant for globetrotting. Thankfully guitarist and Artmachine impresario Jonny Polson was on hand with a cardboard cutout of Erik, who sat frowning in the direction of brother Lewie for the duration.
Vair’s relaxed, eclectic 30-minute set featured a melodic solo tune penned by skilful guitarist Ryan Couper for his baby daughter, a gritty dialect number sung by Lewie, and a tidy mixture of rhythmic, restrained tunes.
It’s maybe just this reviewer’s personal predilection, but Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards felt like a bit of a show-stealer despite the high calibre of the other acts sharing the bill at Voe.
Flanked by top-drawer musicians and harmonists, San Franciscan Cortese is an A-grade vocalist – an easy-on-the-ear style twinned with true emotional depth – possessed of a powerful stage presence.
The accomplished Dance Cards – cellist Valerie Thompson, fiddler Jenna Moynihan and bassist Natalie Bohrn – complemented songs from 2013 album Into the Dark perfectly. Train on the Island would’ve turned many an eye dewy, while the barnstorming Heel to Toe had an enthralled audience singing along.
By the time the four abandoned the stage for the floor to close their set with an unplugged number, there was a palpable hush around the room. Cortese and co had the crowd eating out of their hands, and your correspondent would have gladly devoured an extended set.
Closing the evening were upbeat young trio The East Pointers, who on their last visit to Scotland had played to a sellout crowd at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket during January’s Celtic Connections festival.
Made up of Prince Edward Island cousins Tim Chaisson (fiddle) and the step-dancing Koady Chaisson (banjo), along with guitarist Jake Charron, they stomped their way through a set that had most in the room clapping along – and quite possibly wishing to dispense with the tables/chairs and have themselves a good old hoedown.
When they dialled things down a notch or three, it was for a poignant vocal number about a Nova Scotian who mysteriously went missing overnight on a fishing boat.