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Arts / Laeverick excited to bring harmonious album back home to Burra

The vocal trio began singing together in the chapel during childhood

A pair of cowboy boots on the beach with the words laverrick.

IF NOT for a healthy dose of their midder tongue contained within the three-pronged vocal harmony, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Trouble in Mind – the opening song on Laeverick’s self-titled debut album – for a slice of Americana hailing from the other side of the Atlantic.

From the keening pedal steel of Jackie Robertson – an absolute joy throughout – to the brisk pitter-patter of Erik Laughton’s drums, it is the sound of group of musicians who know this terrain inside out.

With bassist Ivor ‘Fred’ Polson holding things down and the talented Trevor Smith providing sparing, simpatico guitar, it makes the perfect underpinning for Laeverick’s trio of mellifluous voices.

Rhonda Simpson, Jenny Keldie and Mhari McLeman have been singing together since they were young girls in Burra. Saturday brings the Hamnavoe leg of their album launch tour as the seven-piece return to their home community to share the fruits of their labour.

The album features 11 original songs inspired by the people, music, land and sea of their home islands. Recorded and mixed “semi-live” at Mareel with Tim Matthew and then mastered by Gordon Gunn in Caithness, it is the first full studio outing for a band that formed 17 years ago for the Thomas Fraser Festival.

Feet Fly, an irresistibly catchy slice of fiddle-laden country-pop that affords all three hybrid Shetland-Americana voices a verse in the spotlight to great effect, was the very first song written for Laeverick.

Jenny says they had been considering including a Kacey Musgraves number in their live set but, while they liked the song’s message, felt the lyrics didn’t quite fit.

“So I started writing ‘Feet Fly’ and became stuck with lyrics for more verses. Rhonda very quickly emailed back with the rest! It was at that point I thought… oooooh, this could be a fun! Rhonda has the gift of country music lyrics.”

The pair also teamed up to pen Trouble in Mind, while Rhonda and Trevor co-wrote other album standouts including Wild Heart and Too Far Gone. Rhonda’s vocal on the latter is particularly affecting, featuring an almost Dolly-esque quiver.

Songs brimming with melodic quality

Shetland poet Jack Peterson’s words were repurposed for Private Jack, which has Jenny seated at the keyboard as the verse is transformed into a tear-jerkingly poignant ballad. Gentle percussion and pedal steel help set the scene as a sister hopefully awaits her brother’s return from the First World War.

There is no little emotional heft to a second outside contribution. Morning Star was penned by the late, much-loved Jeanette Nowak (Peanuts). Her artistic talent, humour and general attitude to life, not least her approach to living with cancer during her final years, were an inspiration to many. Jenny’s handling of her words is as heartfelt and empathetic as you might expect.

While the songs on Laeverick often home in on the knottier aspects of life, there is a breezy melodic quality reflective of a band that grasps the importance of having fun and making the most of things.

Many of the influences the band cite are of some vintage, but this record evokes modern American roots music as much as the traditional country they grew up on. There are shades of 1990s songstresses in the mould of Beth Nielsen Chapman and Nanci Griffith, as well as latter-day Americana flagbearers such as The Highwomen and Molly Tuttle.

Laeverick received a great reception at this year’s Shetland Folk Festival at Clickimin. Photo: Scott Goudie.

Don’t Go is perhaps the closest Laeverick get to rocking out. It carries a sense of foreboding that wouldn’t be out of place soundtracking a slice of desert noir on the silver screen. It also provides further evidence that, much like Shoormal before them, they can do Americana as well as anyone in Scotland.

The band have played a couple of sets in Shetland already this year, in front of a huge crowd at Clickimin during the folk festival and inside a sun-kissed tent at Victoria Pier during the Tall Ships’ visit to Lerwick in July.

Those performances alone would whet the appetite for a standalone Laeverick gig to brighten up a dark December night. But bringing the album back to the same peerie community where their vocal trio began singing in their childhood promises to be extra special.

Throw in a few distinguished musical guests – and supper included in the ticket price! – and you’ve got the makings of an evening of Shetland culture at its finest.

Burra concert will showcase close family connections

Jenny, travelling home from Orkney for the weekend, spells out how tightly the band’s development has been intertwined with their respective families.

“Rhonda, Mhari and me started singing together in the Burra Methodist Chapel when we were braaly peerie,” she says of a pastime that continued until they left school.

“Mam [Jem Napier] was at the helm ably accompanied by Geordie Pottinger and John James Inkster. I think it’s fair to say all three households while growing up were full of country music, and Parton, Reeves and Kristofferson songs heavily featured in the chapel performances.”

It was Rhonda’s mum May and brother Karl  who asked the singers to “reform” for the Thomas Fraser Festival in 2006.

Meanwhile Geordie, Mhari’s dad, fittingly suggested calling the band Laeverick – the Shetland name for the sweet-singing sky lark.

It is apt, then, that Saturday night’s concert will feature multiple nods to that rich familial heritage.

“It was obvious that we needed May and Mackie to play at our concert and we are thrilled they agreed, especially since Mackie is lesser seen on stage these days,” Jenny says.

Laeverick have now evolved into a seven-piece fronted by a vocal trio – Jenny Keldie, Rhonda Simpson and Mhari McLeman – who began singing together in childhood. Photo: Lieve Boussauw

“We realised it would be braaly special to have Jem, Geordie and John Jeems to join us for a few songs too! It’s been a long while since we’ve all sung together. It might even get a bit emotional, but it will most certainly be a fun.”

Also making an appearance will be the evergreen Sheila Henderson, another singer with “very strong connections” to Laeverick.

One final sidenote: McLeman, a lifelong Shetland Folk Festival fanatic who has programmed the event for many years, is up for volunteer of the year at the Scottish Trad Awards.

The ceremony takes place in Dundee on the same night and, while her bandmates are deeply proud that her dedication has been recognised regardless of the outcome, “what a party we’ll have in the Burra Hall if she wins!”

  •  Laeverick perform in the Burra Public Hall, with support from the Forget Me Notes, from 7.30pm on Saturday (2 December). Tickets, priced £15, are available in advance from Eventbrite or by phoning Rhonda (07826 060054), and you can also pay on the door.
  • CD copies of their eponymous debut album will be on sale, and you can also pick up a copy at High Level Music or buy a digital version here.

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