The Lerwick Legion on a Sunday afternoon is the favourite part of the Shetland Folk Festival for many: no frenzied fiddles, no galloping guitars, no manic mandolins, just beautiful singing excellently accompanied, writes Carol Jamieson.
We kicked, or should I say floated, off with Rosario, a new band on the Shetland scene. In fact, this was their very first gig. Rosario centres around Charity Johnson the singer and songwriter of the group. She is backed by Jonathon Bulter on guitar, Archer Kemp on drums and David Sjoberg on bass while executing the synth with his feet…at the same time!!
The group did not have the customary unsteady feel of a band new to playing together. The first piece began with beautiful string noises and haunting, controlled, sonorous singing from Charity. Then the band dived in, evidencing a group well capable and rehearsed with intricate and complex rhythms and harmonic progressions grabbing our attention from the start.
Fire was the highlight of the set showing them all to be accomplished musicians and showcasing Charity’s large and dynamic range of vocal expression. The arrangements were complex and well thought out through all the songs and the icing on the cake was Charity’s voice. It ranged from subtle, soft and sensitive to gutsy, passionate soul. An impressive debut performance, I’m sure we will be hearing more from Rosario.
We segued nicely then into Dirk Powell and his daughter Amelia. Dirk is a multi-instrumentalist and four times Grammy Award winner who played here in Shetland 23 years ago. He has worked with Emmy Lou Harris, Steve Earl, Eric Clapton and many more. His deep, rich voice and his rounded American accent on Appalachian and Cajun songs, charmed us all. The sparsity of chords down to one or two is one of the things that gives this music its universal charm and appeal.
There is a certain richness of tone achieved when family members sing together, and this was evident when they harmonised. The song I Ain’t Playin Pretty Polly Anymore was a favourite with the audience as it was about how so many Appalachian songs seem to unapologetically highlight violence against women. Dirk wrote the song to illustrate his objection to this and voice his decision never to sing any of these songs again.
They finished with a fast and funny toe tapper about a braggart with a penchant for the ladies.
“Look out boys, get out the way, ladies stand in line
I’m not perfect but I’m close, an I’m dyin if I’m lyin”
Great way to end the set.
I wasn’t prepared or expecting how the last act of the afternoon would hit me. Kyla Brox; quite sensational. She has been described as “The finest female blues singer of her generation and has won the UK Blues Challenge in 2018 and the European Blues Challenge in 2019.
A big, beautiful woman with an even bigger and more beautiful voice. Stunning to watch as well as listen to. We were treated to soul, soul and more soul…I was happy.
Spending most of the time in the 12-bar format, the band was able to create a different feel for each track. She was ably and sensitively accompanied by Paul Farr on guitar, Danny Blomeley (her husband) on bass and Mark Warburton on drums.
One of the high spots in her set for me was the song she wrote for her children I Will Love You More. No mother could remain unmoved by this song. Stunning.
She finished with a request to sing Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. I’ve heard many versions, but this one left me stunned and shaking. Her performance took me somewhere outside my surroundings, I was lost in the unreal quality of voice from the first note. She poured her heart and soul into the performance, and you felt you knew her a bit better by the end of it.
What a high to go out on and what a thrill. I will never cease to be amazed at the folk festival committee for being able to bring performers of such standard to our little island. They really are quite amazing.