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Reviews / Ringing Strings – the future of fiddle music in safe hands

Shane Cook & The Woodchippers were joined on stage by Canadian fiddler James Stephens. Photos: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

IF THE 2022 festival was the semi-skimmed version, due to lingering Covid restrictions, this year’s is definitely full fat, with the cream of folk musicians, both visiting and local, ready to entertain and delight audiences over the four day spree, writes Caroline McKenzie.

Ringing Strings was the title of Thursday night’s opening concert at Mareel, described as a celebration of fiddle music, and what a celebration!

The Shetland Fiddlers’ Society is now into its 60s but shows no signs of waning.   The group kicked off by reprising the very first set the fledgling society performed on its debut appearance at the 1960 Hamefarin and closed its opening spot with what we were told was us “watching history being made”.

It was the first time the fiddlers, as a group, had used the technique known as drawing the bass.  This last set really captured the essence of the society in preserving Shetland’s fiddle tradition; and what a great job they make of it.

Dirk Powell is a musician with roots in several traditions: eastern Kentucky, the Appalachians and Louisiana. His warm voice and personality; and the ease with which he swaps between fiddle, accordion, guitar and banjo make it easily apparent why he’s so highly respected on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dirk’s brought his daughter Amelia to perform with him this weekend. She’s steeped in the Cajun tradition of her famous grandfather Dewey Balfa, which was clearly demonstrated in her plaintive vocals on the Balfa Waltz and My Old Wagon: her rendition of Amythyst Kiah’s The Worst was pretty special, too.

Joe Phillips taking double bass playing to new heights.

Dirk and Amelia were joined on stage by Sammy Lind and Nadine Landry of the Foghorn String Band; four musicians very much at home with each other, and making great music together,

One of the highlights of any folk festival, for me, is the chance to catch an all-too-rare performance by Shetland’s own Bryan Gear. Accompanied by the peerless Violet Tulloch on piano, it is a joy to watch these two consummate musicians on stage together: whether it’s a trio of Judi Nicolson waltzes, a beautiful slow air from the pen of the late Ian Hardie, or a lively set of hornpipes, they make them shine.

Bryan’s Paganini-like virtuosity was highlighted in a tune he picked up from Danish fiddler Harald Haugaard at an earlier festival. Not one learned in a festival club stairwell, I suspect, but you never know!

Bryan and Violet were a tough act to follow, but the newly-crowned Shetland Young Fiddler of the year, Evie Williamson, carried it off, with aplomb.  Accompanied by her tutor, Eunice Henderson, Evie played her two winning sets from last weekend’s competition.  She may not have wanted to say much on stage, but her playing did the talking; and it told us that the future of Shetland fiddle music is in very safe hands.

The Canadian fiddle tradition is always a welcome presence at the folk festival, and this year it’s here in the form of Shane Cook and the Woodchippers, from Ontario.  This band brings a real high energy to the stage, with Shane himself on fiddle, Joe Phillips taking double bass playing to new heights and the step dancing wizardry of pianist Emily Flack and guitarist Kyle Waymouth, with Emily also showing off an amazing voice.

As if all that wasn’t enough to delight us, Shane brought Bryan and Violet back on for a set of Graham Townsend tunes.  This is surely one of the festival’s greatest assets – the forging of new musical connections. To see it happening to such great effect on the very first night of the festival sets a high bar for the rest of the weekend. Bring it on!

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