VARIETY has been the optimal word at this weekend’s 37th Shetland Folk Festival, with acts from all across the globe performing on the big stage at Clickimin, intimate village hall concerts, on board a sailboat in Lerwick Harbour, on ferry car decks and at countless impromptu sessions whenever the moment seemed right.
Crowds flocked on board three-masted sail training ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl on Friday and Saturday afternoons for free concerts that happily coincided with the nicest weather Shetland has enjoyed this spring.
Chris Brown’s photos capture a flavour of proceedings on deck, as party favourites The Chair, from neighbouring Orkney, were joined by Italian peddlers of old-time Americana and rag time blues Veronica and the Red Wine Serenaders and a local collection of classy musicians featuring Kenny Johnson (mandolin), Lynda Anderson (fiddle), Grant Nicol (guitar) and Graham Malcolmson (bass).
Friday afternoon’s concert at Islesburgh, meanwhile, saw The Goodbye Girls – a quartet of great musicians hailing from Canada, Sweden and the US, fronted by brilliant guitarist and singer Molly Tuttle – deliver a hauntingly beautiful reading of traditional murder ballad Rain and Snow (see video).
Other highlights in their set included Happy Penguin, an instrumental tune written by Swedish fiddler Lena Jonsson, and the more country-flavoured bluegrass of the Hazel Dickens/Alice Gerrard number Hello Stranger – while Little Maggie’s warm melody enabled Tuttle’s adept vocal range to shine.
Also on the bill on Friday afternoon were Ten Strings and a Goatskin, a trio helping to maintain the festival’s enduring connection with Prince Edward Island with an intoxicating blend of high-class tunesmithery featuring guitar, fiddle and foot-stomping percussion – with humorous anecdotes to boot -that really got festival-goers in the mood.
Another highlight was Belgian brothers Trio Dhoore, who were full of energy and tight interplay as they weaved their way through sets of predominantly traditional Flemish instrumental tunes.
The siblings were on equally good form come the evening concert at Mareel on Friday. The Belgians also tick the festival’s traditional “what on earth is that instrument and how does it work?” box. Performing left of centre was Koen Dhoore with an electro-acoustic hurdy gurdy, which his younger brother – and de facto frontman – Ward Dhoore bluntly described as a “crap” instrument.
But it certainly didn’t sound crap in Koen’s capable hands. Given that this writer struggles to correctly operate a child’s Casio keyboard, you’re probably best seeking out Google for a reliable technical explanation, but the pear-shaped hurdy gurdy features a wheel which is cranked around to produce a sort of warm drone, while melodies come from playing a keyboard which then presses wood against the strings to affect their pitch.
Ward was also a great storyteller, talking of how one self-penned set, Antlers Dancing, was written for a bagpipe-obsessed three-year-old who stayed up late dancing to the Scottish instrument. The standard of musicianship at the festival is generally high across the board, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a tigher musical combo than the Dhoore brothers.
Opening the same show was Arthur Nicholson and friends. Having played much the same set in solo acoustic guise for the past few years, Nicholson roped in the help of First Foot Soldiers bandmates Chris Thomson and Robert Balfour, Revellers drummer John-William Halcrow – and double BBC Folk Award winner Kris Drever on electric guitar for part of the set.
His self-penned songs sounded terrific in fleshed-out form, with some gorgeous harmonies on Go For It and a musuclar rhythm section beefing up Ready To Go and indie-rock closer Part of the Frame.
Also in the mix were Veronica and the Red Wine Serenaders, who went down a storm as they drew on pre-war American blues and ragtime – along with the more British folk-sounding original Curse the Day, which had the crowd singing along with real gusto.
Frontwoman Veronica Sbergia came on stage brandishing a washboard and kazoo, which might have sparked fears that we were about to head into novelty act territory, but she has a strong voice and the Italians’ take on Americana is very believable.
Guitarist Max De Bernardi is a formidable player, wringing all sorts of country blues out of his Gibson as the trio transported everyone to the Deep South of bygone eras.
There was a moment of self-acknowledged comedy towards the end as the chorus of Darkness on the Delta was changed to Darkness on the Shetlands – which worked just fine until Veronica got to lyrical references to cotton fields and the Mississipi! The song itself was a fitting, gentle climax to 40 minutes of warm, good-natured entertainment.
Earlier in the concert local youngsters Fiola, featuring a line-up including 2015 young fiddler of the year Bryden Priest, Lerwick fiddler Lara Polson and guitarist Megan Nisbet. Their well-played mix of reels and slow airs showed Shetland’s traditional music scene remains in fine fettle.
Friday night’s closing act were five-piece folk supergroup Imar. Featuring members of bands familiar to those who follow the party-folk scene including Manran and RURA, they count top-notch Isle of Man fiddler Tomas Callister, bouzouki player Adam Rhodes, Mohsen Amini (of last year’s festival visitors Talisk), bodhran man Adam Brown and likeable Irish uilleann piper Ryan Murphy in their number.
Mohsin possesses boundless, infectious energy in his playing and the rest of the group followed suit for much of their performance – though it was a teary-eyed fiddle piece from Manxian Callister that provided the set’s standout moment.