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Reviews / Spellbinding Americana harmonies at Mareel

Harmony trio The Stray Birds, featuring new addition Dominic Billett on drums, delivered "a plethora of great songs delivered with absolute conviction". Photo: Dale Smith

A PACKED crowd at Mareel for a night of Americana music on Friday night – headlined by Pennsylvanian harmony group The Stray Birds – certainly did not leave disappointed, writes Catherine Brown.

The evening started off with Shetland band Kansa. As band member Norma put it, we were taken on a “whistle-stop tour of country across the decades”. And what a delightful tour it was!

Throughout their set, Kansa provided great variety and demonstrated true musicianship. It really looked like they were having fun and enjoyed great camaraderie on stage. Diction was clear, harmonies perfect pitch and there was a very fine instrumental section. In addition, the instrumentalists provided us with their own set, which was spot-on in giving a pleasant contrast in their programme.

At one point, the Kansa suitcase, placed at the front of the stage, was opened and the “peerie drum” played by Adrian Wishart, who deftly swapped it from his mandolin to accompany ‘Go on Take the Money and Run’.

Glasgow quartet Daniel Meade and the Flying Mules featured some "incredible" steel strung guitar solos. Photo: Dale Smith

Kansa ended on Andrew Bird’s song ‘Three White Horses’ which was beautifully arranged with contrasting dynamics and tempo.

We then moved onto Glasgow band Daniel Meade and The Flying Mules, who introduced themselves with ‘Rising River Blues’. Catchy and energetic, it was full of interesting counter-harmonies and provided us with the first of many fantastic steel-strung guitar solos.

Moving onto ‘As Good As Bad Can Be’, we were introduced to the double bassist’s phenomenal slap-bassing. It really was quite mesmerising to watch. One was left wondering quite how he managed to extract quite so much sound from the instrument.

The band provided a great breadth of tempos, including the more sensual ‘Sometimes a Fool’s the Last to Know’. Yet more increasingly incredible steel-strung guitar solo.

Meade, who did all the introducing, kept the audience entertained.  At one stage, he jokingly mentioned that “we’re gonna come back… and rob you all”, having discovered how friendly the community here is, including the relative lack of security, which he clearly found refreshing.

‘Goodnight Irene’ was an especially popular number with the audience, played very sensitively.

A positive song about dying? Yes, this is how The Stray Birds got to know us. The uplifting song, about a person’s wishes around their death, started with a cappella singing, followed by the drummer having a singing solo, and building up into a full instrumental with spellbinding harmonies. What was very striking was how each band member made full use of their voice, varying the dynamic within each breath.

Local six-piece Kansa offered "clear diction and pitch perfect harmonies". Photo: Dale Smith

This was followed by Maya de Vitry (fiddle) and Oliver Craven (guitar) swapping instruments for what was the first of many occasions. The band then performed ‘Fossil’, Maya’s own song about the naivety of youth and ambition for the future – “how little we knew and how much we wanted to”.

We were treated to a plethora of great songs that were delivered with absolute conviction. The tempo varied most agreeably, from the soulful ‘Harlem’ to the upbeat song about keeping positive even when things are looking a little down.

There was even a Doc Watson yodelling song, led by bassist Charlie Muench. The group received a standing ovation at the end of the performance, and returned for an encore that was, rather fittingly, about how music is the best medicine.

So, to conclude, this was a wonderful and varied evening of fantastic Americana music and song. It was also a real tribute to both the local talent that exists within Shetland, and the bands that she is able to attract.

Special mention must be given to sound engineer Tim Matthew and the rest of the stage team at Mareel. The acoustics were sound (excuse the pun) and the lighting on stage fitted the ambience of the evening perfectly.

  • Daniel Meade & the Flying Mules, Kansa and Adam Guest perform at Vidlin Hall on Saturday night. Tickets priced £15 (concessions £12) available on the door.
"Spellbinding" harmonies won The Stray Birds plenty of new fans on Friday night. Photo: Dale Smith

Catherine Brown