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Reviews / Review: mellow gems and murder ballads

The Furrow Collective, from left to right: Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton. Photo: Kelly Nicolson Riddell.

“SO YOU like your murder ballads, then” smiled Lucy Farrell in response to the warm applause greeting the conclusion of The Furrow Collective’s opening song, Willie’s Fatal Visit, at Mareel on Saturday night.

It is a grisly lyrical tale, granted, but Farrell’s crystal clear vocal imbues the song – discovered from Ray Fisher’s reading of the song back in 1991, accompanied by Martin Carthy – with elegiac beauty and grace.

Later in the set Farrell joked of how they were once asked to dedicate a song to a woman in the audience celebrating her birthday, and they opted for a number containing the refrain “poor old horse, poor old mare”.

The evening had begun with a short, four-song set from Yell native Barry Nisbet, who has recently completed an album under his own name entitled A Bright Ray of Sunshine.

Lucy Farrell. Photo: Kelly Nicolson Riddell.

In recorded form the songs have fuller arrangements, but on this occasion Nisbet performed alone with his guitar and fiddle. The latter was employed to powerful effect as he rounded his performance off with the excellent Hunger’s Daughter, bringing to mind the early work of Devon’s famous fiddling singer Seth Lakeman.

Keep an eye out for Shetland News’ forthcoming interview with Nisbet.

The Furrow Collective are a four-piece of singers and musicians formed out of English folk singer Emily Portman’s trio, which featured Scottish harp/fiddle player and singer Rachel Newton and violist/vocalist Farrell. They added Glasgow-based singer and guitarist Alasdair Roberts to the mix for a project focused on reworking traditional songs.

The quartet share lead vocal duties, while the two Scots and two English voices harmonise gorgeously throughout, most notably on Many’s the Night’s Rest.

Dubbed a “Sussex country and western song” by Portman, it is typical of the sparse, sympathetic musical arrangements the Furrow Collective employ in their treatment of these ancient folk songs, with the four voices accompanied only by sparingly plucked banjo from Portman and tuneful electric guitar work from Roberts.

Most of the material performed is drawn from the band’s second album Wild Hog, released back in 2016, though we were treated to a Cecilia Costello number from the band’s recently-completed third LP, due for release in November.

Barry Nisbet performed a short solo set at Mareel on Saturday night. Photo courtesy of Shetland Arts.

While the matter of death is never far from the lips of these guys – hey, we all gotta do it sometime – there is a tremendous warmth to their melancholy ways.  A deadly poisoning and the threat of a hanging loom large in the fictional Queen Eleanor’s Confession, but it is dressed up in the most liltingly pretty of melodies.

Newton, who previously played Shetland Folk Festival with her band The Shee, spoke of how they had been delighted to acquaint themselves with various Jimmy Perez-related locales – there’s that interest in murder manifesting itself again…

On stage, Newton colours many of these ageless songs with beautiful harp playing, while her interpretation of Skippin’ Barfit Through the Heather has a spectral quality.

Roberts-led main set closer Wild Hog in the Woods, meanwhile, takes its cue from an Americanised version of an antique UK ballad titled Sir Lionel, and in the context of the mellow gems that have preceded it is positively rambunctious. The encore is given over to a suite of two tender lullabies. 

Audience numbers were on the thin side – perhaps in part down to the SMUHA hop day occupying the time of many among Shetland’s folk music fraternity. But those present enjoyed hearing four devoted collectors of song funnelling fresh wine into dusty old bottles with no little style and polish.

Neil Riddell