The unmistakable smell of paraffin filled the air as a band of thirty Vikings lit their torches in the incongruous setting of a side street in the heart of Glasgow’s Merchant City, writes Caroline McKenzie.
A small crowd of curious onlookers gathered, as squad members from the South Mainland Up Helly Aa set off, cheering and singing, on their march through George Square to the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Bemused pub and restaurant goers spilled out onto the streets, phones at the ready, to capture an image or two of the spectacle.
Sadly, with pandemic restrictions still in place until today (Monday), audience numbers were severely limited, so there were just a couple of hundred lucky ticket holders taking their seats in an auditorium which holds two and a half thousand for a concert celebrating Shetland’s music and heritage.
However, what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in enthusiasm, cheering loudly as the concert’s musical mastermind, fiddler and composer Chris Stout, led his fellow Fiddlers’ Bid band members on stage to kick things off with a blistering set of reels.
You could sense the undiluted joy emanating from the musicians as they played together for the first time in longer than they probably care to remember. The ‘Bid’ fiddle line-up of Chris, Kevin Henderson and Maurice Henderson was augmented for the night by Ross Couper, standing in for Andrew Gifford.
The supremely talented Catriona MacKay provided her extra magic on harp and piano, to create the band’s distinctive sound, with great guitar backing from Adam Brown and Jen Butterworth, and the gorgeous double bass of Neil Harland.
As the concert title would suggest, this wasn’t purely a showcase for Shetland fiddle music: it was also strong on vocal talent. Fair Isle’s Inge Thomson was, truly, a Norn voice, performing the intriguing Myrkabrod Mynta, a song she’d been commissioned to write by Bill Drummond (of KLF fame), as one of a series on the dead languages of Britain.
Freda Leask’s beautiful, rich tones sang out in the self-penned Ghostnotes, while ‘honorary Shetlander’ for the night, Kris Drever, treated us to his wonderful When The Shouting Is Over, opening with Inge joining him in some beautiful close harmony whistling.
There was more singer/songwriter talent on show, with Jenny Napier Keldie taking inspiration from the sentiments behind a poem by the late Rhoda Bulter – Bül My Sheep.
One of several deeply moving moments of the evening came when leading Shetland fiddle tradition bearer Catriona Macdonald was joined by her fellow fiddlers for Michael’s Mazurka, a beautiful tribute to their great pal and fellow musician, the late Michael Ferrie.
Jazz and traditional Shetland music sit comfortably together – just think of the guitar style of the late Peerie Willie Johnson – but the melding of the two was taken to another level when local saxophonist Norman Willmore was joined by Chris and Catriona MacKay on Da Day Dawn. A definite wow moment!
There was the spoken word too with Yell poet Christie Williamson’s sonorous delivery of Isles Sang, his specially commissioned piece to mark the 550th anniversary of Shetland – as he put it – coming under the purview of the Scottish crown.
Staying true to its Norn theme, the concert drew to a close with Shetland’s oldest song Obadeea; and what a sight and sound as the musicians were joined on stage by the SMUHA squad members.
There were tears in many a Shetland eye during the rendition of The Norseman’s Home that followed. A final barnstorming set of tunes brought the night to a close, and the small, but enthusiastic audience leapt to their feet to deliver a richly deserved standing ovation.
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