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Features / Stylish stuff on folk-ish debut from Vair

Vair pictured at Carnegie Hall after wrapping up recording. From left: Erik Peterson, sound engineer Tim Matthew, Ryan Couper, Lewie Peterson and Jonny Polson.

“IT’S KINDA old-fashioned looking, but also modern.” Lewie Peterson is talking about the distinctive timepiece featured on the cover of his band Vair’s debut A Place in Time, but it could equally refer to the music featured on the album itself.

The title reflects how many of the tunes and songs featured have been inspired by events, people and places that have meant a lot to the band in the past few years.

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“We thought a theme of time and place was quite appropriate,” he tells Shetland News. “There have been a lot of comings and goings – people that have sadly left, but also people that have entered the band’s lives.”

The most direct examples of that are the prettiest of melodies contained in the two most reflective tunes on a classy album set to be launched at this wekeend’s Shetland Folk Festival.

Ackrigarth, written by Lewie and guitarist Jonny Polson, is dedicated to late Shetland Folk Festival stalwart Davie Henderson. He played a formative role in getting Vair together and onto stages throughout the islands, and the tune was only finished after his sad death in January 2014.

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Then there’s Jessi Jo-Ann Couper, touchingly written and performed alone by highly talented guitarist Ryan Couper for his baby daughter, who was born in August 2015.

A Place in Time was recorded during “fun and relaxed sessions” in Sandwick’s Carnegie Hall with sound engineer and all-round sage Tim Matthew. 

It is bookended by two sets of tunes, Trip to Breckon and Orkney Butcher, that approximate a signature sound for the good-natured quartet – driving rhythm guitar and gentle percussion underpinning feel-good acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin motifs. 

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The emotional warmth of Delunna could almost be a theme tune for Shetland Folk Festival – even if, unusually for a traditional album from these parts, there is nary a fiddle to be found.

The artwork for Vair's debut album 'A Place in Time', which will be launched on Saturday.

Each band member is a product of the Shetland music scene, but as Lewie says “we’re all into quite a wide range of world music and folk music, and personally into rockier stuff as well” while “some of the arrangements are probably not that traditional”.  

Half the tracks are at least partly self-penned, while others were composed by tune-writers the band much admire – including Michael McGoldrick, Aidan O’Rourke and Phil Cunningham. 

Lewie’s brother Erik, who recently moved to Perthshire, assumes lead vocal duties for a cover of hallowed American singer-songwriter Warron Zevon’s anthem Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

It was brought to the table by Lewie, who describes the late Zevon as “one of the most underrated singer-songwriters” of his era.

The song is about foreign intervention and how “if you stir up a hornet’s nest then there’s gonna be consequences”, and still seems apt half a century on: “It sounds like it’s glorifying violence – a lot of his songs do, but they always tend to have a moral to the story.”

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Lewie himself was encouraged to try his hand at writing and singing while taking part in the Shetland and Orkney Gathering a few years ago.

The self-penned Atween Da Wadders addresses themes of identity and belonging – “something many islanders struggle with when they move down to the bright lights of the big city for university or work”.

Vair have also arranged Vagaland poem Waterlilies, set where Lewie and Erik’s mother Arlene grew up on Shetland’s west side.

David Brent from The Office, a musician of some renown himself, delivers his verdict.

Lewie describes his vocals as “half dialect, half knappin” – reflecting the confusion a lot of islanders feel about their native tongue.

“A lot of musicians comfortably speak it, it’s not something that they shy away from, but certainly on a personal level I found it quite intimidating when I first started singing in it,” he says.

“You tend to feel a bit more scared of getting it wrong, and I’m pretty sure there are ways of pronouncing that we’ve not done right, but the way I see it is you sing the way you speak.”

He added a lot of the band had been influenced by how bands like Shoormal performed dialect “in a contemporary way”, as did his father Gary’s band Hom Bru.

Jonny, meanwhile, put his professional graphic design talents to good use using an image of a distorted clock taken by Eric Freitas.

The Art Machine whizzkid has also fashioned promotional posters for the album featuring some of the band’s favourite celebritiess – keep an eye out for David Brent, Adele and, er, Donald Trump proudly clutching their copies of the album.

Those dubious endorsements notwithstanding, A Place in Time is a stylish document likely to stand up strongly against any folk, or folk-ish, record released in Scotland this year. 

  • Vair will be launching their debut CD A Place in Time in Room 10 at Islesburgh as part of Shetland Folk Festival on Saturday (29 April) at 12.30pm.

Neil Riddell

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