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Reviews / What a great way to start the festival!

Kansa's closely entwined vocal harmonies brought 'sheer joy' there Big Kirk audience. All photos: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

IT’S GREAT to have it back in all its glory! Not just the festival itself that is, but all the buzz that goes with it too, writes Davie Gardner.

You know the feeling – and it’s been increasingly building over the last few months – particularly since this year’s festival line up was first announced.  That ‘canna wait’, heady mix of anticipation, even expectation, mixed with downright excitement – all in the knowledge that you’re almost certainly set for little short of a fantastic few days of incredibly varied, high quality music, accompanied by, just about as much social shenanigans as any human body is capable of enduring – something one festival committee member, only semi-jokingly, refers to as “the nonsense”.

The only thing likely to be lacking for most over this extended weekend is sleep. That particular component of the festival was once wonderfully summed up by legendary Scottish singer/songwriter Dick Gaughan through his now much quoted observation that “you have to sleep very quickly during the Shetland Folk Festival”.

That festival ‘buzz’ is perhaps all the more acute this year – the festivals 41st – due to the fact this really amounts to the first full blown event since Covid unwelcomely unleashed its havoc on us, forcing the cancellation of two festivals and making last years’ 40th anniversary a slightly more subdued and restricted affair than would ordinarily have been the case.

So, it’s great to have it back and it’s been ‘lang lippened’ as they say in these parts.

My first taste proper of this year’s event – bar the musical ‘taster’ session which traditionally follows the lunchtime opening ceremony and heralds the start of the festival in its long-established Islesburgh ‘home’ – takes place on Thursday evening in the normally sedate and serene surroundings of Lerwick’s ‘big kirk’ – St Columba’s.

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It’s perhaps an unlikely folk festival venue, but one that offers not only beautiful surroundings but, equally importantly, an acoustically complimentary atmosphere to go along with that, both of which ultimately enhance the musical line up that awaits us.

Introduced by tonight’s compere Danny Peterson, the largely mellow bluegrass, Americana and old-time country of Shetland’s very own Kansa would fit comfortably into just about any surroundings, but perhaps even more so in the ambience of somewhere such as St Columba’s.

Their closely entwined vocal harmonies, courtesy of Norma Wishart and Karlyn Garrick, ably enhanced and ‘coloured’ further by slick acoustic, instrumental accompaniment – mandolin (Adrian Wishart) guitar (Robert Wishart) fiddle (Lois Nicol) and double bass (Adam Priest) – can be summed up in just two short words – sheer joy!

This in two ways really – the joy audiences clearly get from attending their live performances and that which they themselves openly convey through performing together as a group. A genuine ‘win/win’ situation.

Delivering a mix of self-penned songs, mostly lifted from their excellent album The Rowan Tree which sit comfortably alongside well-chosen covers from the likes of the Punch Brothers and the Del McCoury Band, it’s a terrific night opener, with some of their own songs such as Follow Me Home and particularly In the Mountains sounding almost ethereal given the surroundings.

“It’s very special to be here,” Norma had initially said by way of introduction. By the end of their relatively short set the response of the audience suggested she was by now speaking for them as well.

Soul singer Kyla Brox is set to become one of this year’s festival highlights

Safe to say it’s unlikely the ‘big kirk’ has witnessed anything remotely equal to the bluesy, soulful sound, and astonishing vocals, of Manchester’s multi award-winning vocalist Kyla Brox – accompanied by guitarists Paul Farr and her husband Danny Blomeley.

In true blues and soul tradition Brox’s rich and deep voice evokes both pleasure and pain. And this apparently slightly stripped-down version of her full band, enhanced by the kirk’s terrific acoustics, let that voice be heard and appreciated to its full, gospel tinged magnificence.

Among the regularly flowing highlights – most of them self-penned songs – are Beautiful Day – with a passing nod to that’s days lovely weather – and The Painter, written by her late, blues singing father who, she tells us, sadly passed away just a couple of months ago. The rawness of that loss is still evident for all to see as she passionately and emotionally delivers the song in his memory.

She closes the set with what amounts to little short of a glorious version of Leonard Cohen’s classic Hallelujah – an emotionally and vocally daunting challenge for most singers – but here Brox not only delivers it brilliantly but virtually makes it her own, with some of the audience, it later transpires, apparently moved to tears at this point.

You also get the feeling that it’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere will be getting a significant ground-shaking indication on their Richter Scale machine – followed closely by a sizeable ‘after-shock’ – this being the audience response at the end of her all too short set.

Most seem to reckon that we’ve just witnessed someone who’s about to become one of this year’s festival highlights.

Making a welcome return 13 years after their debut performance: the Foghorn String Band.

Thirteen years on from their debut appearance at the 2010 festival many are eager and more than ready to welcome back the Foghorn String Band, featuring members who hail from Canada and America. Suffice to say if there’s a better bluegrass, old-time country band anywhere else across the pond I’d love to meet them.

They expertly feature all the components traditionally required of such a band – great vocals and wonderful harmonies, bound together by fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and double bass – spiced up with sheer and clear enthusiasm for what they do, while adding liberal dashes of good humour for good measure too.

Not to be outdone in any way by those who preceded them, they deliver a blistering set of tunes and songs – ranging from the raucous to the sublime. One moment you’re virtually sensing the ghost of the late, great Hank Williams being among us via a great country song such as It’s Me Again Lord, while the next you’re doing your best to remain seated and restrained during sets such as the square dancing tune Wild Hog in the Woods – “you wouldn’t know what that is of course,” they joke with reference to our lack of trees – or their version of the Hangman’s Reel.

Despite this, reverence to our surroundings is duly observed and an element of composure wins out in the end with the audience somehow managing to remain seated and un-dancing throughout. However, the level of applause, not to mention the beaming smiles on many faces at the end of the Foghorn’s set, says all we need to know about this – and indeed the whole night in general. A great way to start the festival that’s for sure.

At the start of this review, I mentioned quite a few words all of which can closely be associated with the festival. But let’s take time to add another to that: appreciation.

Not only of the outstanding musical acts the festival continually brings to these islands from all over the world, but also of the entirely voluntary committee, who work incredibly hard on all of our behalf’s – together with their equally committed and enthusiastic teams of local volunteers, venues, technical teams and so forth – all combining to make the festival happen across the geographical length and breadth of Shetland on an annual basis – pandemics willing of course.

It takes a lot of effort to simply put on one individual gig of this nature, given all that goes with that, so rest assured it’s little short of a gargantuan task to pull something like the Shetland Folk Festival together year on year. Hats off to them and their selfless commitment to this. Rest assured it truly is appreciated!!

Now, let “the nonsense” commence!!!

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