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Arts / ‘Eclectic and high quality’ line-up put on impressive folk festival show at Mareel

The Tenement Jazz Band offered something a little different at Mareel on Thursday night on the opening night of the 42nd Shetland Folk Festival. Photo: Marvin Smith

IT’S HARD to know exactly when the post folk festival blues, which many clearly suffer from at the end of each festival, give way to a renewed air of anticipation for the next one.

But thankfully this seems to happen pretty quickly and even seamlessly. Then it’s simply a matter of patience and a waiting game again.

Outside of Up Helly Aa it’s hard to think of any other community event that generates this kind of…well…‘longing’ is perhaps an apt word, I suppose.

It’s a widespread and engaging event featuring all the ingredients necessary for ensuring a good time, culturally cooked up by a small but dedicated and tireless group of volunteers – the Shetland Folk Festival committee.

For many – including an increasing number of younger folk it would seem – the four to five days of wall-to-wall live music and social revelry that go to make up the Shetland Folk Festival constitutes, quite simply, the musical and social highlight of their year – and it’s not hard to understand why.

Now the ‘day-counting’ wait is almost over and for the 42nd time a host of hugely talented visiting artists – amounting to sixteen richly diverse acts in total this time around – from the likes of Canada, the USA, Norway, Spain, Ireland and the UK – oh and let’s not forget Orkney too of course – are set to descend on our music-hungry islands.

Here they’ll join forces with masses of our own, equally diverse, homegrown talent to deliver a plethora of concerts, sessions, workshops, late night club events, children’s and ASN concerts (inclusion in its genuine form) and so on, taking place literally the length and breadth of the islands within a dozen or so different venues, including, of course, the legendary Islesburgh festival club in Lerwick – the veritable heart of the festival.

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Oh, and there’s raffles too of course! Let’s not forget those.

The only thing that’s likely to be in short supply is, as always, sleep. There will be ample time for that in due course however but, for now, that’s the last thing on most folks’ minds.

It’s Thursday – day one of the festival – and the ferry has recently disgorged a generous bellyful of visiting artists, several of whom have…how shall I put it…been ‘acclimatising’ themselves both musically and socially on the overnight voyage north – a form of preparation for the marathon ahead of them perhaps.

The sun is shining (as it often appears to do for the festival), body-batteries are slowly being recharged following any excessive depletions resulting from the night before, and after settling in with their local hosts (another hugely important, community related element of the Shetland festival) the visiting artists are set for kick-off at the traditional lunchtime opening event where their job is to further whet our appetites with just the merest taste of what we hope to feed off for the next four-plus days.

My first flirtation with the festival happens later that evening in Mareel where a ‘sold-out’ audience are pretty much buzzing from the outset.

Safe to say that with an eclectic, high quality and award-winning line-up such as the one on offer here tonight – coupled to the end of the festival waiting game mentioned earlier – the already charged atmosphere comes as no great surprise.

The theme here tonight is ‘Scots with a Twist’ which compere Lewie Peterson explains intends to offer us a “different take” on traditional music. If that’s the aim then it more than succeeds as we’re ultimately treated to more twists and turns, albeit musical ones, than the Trollstigen road in Norway – Google it if you don’t know.

Opening any gig can be a daunting and challenging prospect of course and the honour here – if that be the word – falls to the massed ranks of our very own Shetland Mandolin Band, who clearly do view their allotted task here tonight as being an honour.

The Shetland Mandolin Band. Photo: Davie Gardner

If, as we’re told, there’s supposedly ‘safety in numbers’ then their healthy on-stage congregation surely offer that security if nothing else.

That, together with their attitude and approach which leader Jenny Henry says is one of “it doesn’t matter if we mak mistakes, we’re all having fun” – neatly sums up what making music, in many instances at least, should generally be about.

They go on to deliver a more than well-received set of tunes which span the international divide, punctuated by Jenny’s humour laden between-set links.

One of the most amusing is where she takes tongue-in-cheek issue with the logistical layout, and therefore green footprint, of Lerwick and Shetland Islands Council’s somewhat, she observes, long-windedly titled ‘Gremista Waste Management Facility and Recycling Centre’.

She goes on to suggest to the SIC chief executive – who’s in the audience tonight – that it should simply be renamed ‘the dump’ for a myriad of administrative reasons. Music and humour – a winning combination on every occasion!

The Mandolin Band make way for Edinburgh’s award-winning Tenement Jazz Band who, armed with trumpets, trombones, clarinets, banjos and a stage-dominating, deep-sounding sousaphone (again Google it if you don’t know), expertly and quirkily whisk us back to the era of 1920s and 30s stateside club-life with their heady mix of New Orleans-tinged jazz, ragtime and blues.

The response of 21st century Lerwick to this is little short of rapturous.

Back in 2022 the band claimed the title of ‘Best Band’ at the Scottish Jazz Awards and with their raw energy, skilled and honed performance and clear love of what they do, it’s not hard to see why.

They are due to appear at the festival’s children’s concert today and you immediately know the kids will love them in an inter-generational and era-spanning way.

You also know that when literally every song someone delivers as part of their set can be termed a ‘highlight’ you’re onto a winner, and that’s undoubtedly the case with Kirsten Adamson and her band the Tanagers.

Kirsten Adamson and the Tanagers. Photo: Marvin Smith

Kirsten has, genetically speaking at the very least, a solid musical pedigree being the daughter of the late Scottish rock legend Stuart Adamson of the Skids and Big Country fame while, in her own right, she herself is now, very much deservedly, a rising star of the UK Americana scene. Again, it’s not hard to see why.

As I say, literally every song she offers up is a highlight in itself, with the band themselves being tighter than the current Chancellor of the Exchequer’s purse strings.

Stand out tracks include In the Next Life and her lockdown inspired song Let Me Live, but it’s when she delivers a heartfelt musical tribute to her late dad, My Father’s Songs, that the emotions begin to well up.

She immediately follows this with a jaw-dropping interpretation of the Big Country classic In a Big Country where everything begins to boil over emotionally with the sheer originality, power and beauty of her version, particularly when she encourages the audience to sing along with the section of the song that ends with the words ‘stay alive’. It’s another of those Shetland Folk Festival ‘moments’.

Suffice to say that her father would, I suspect, be incredibly proud. She’s a genuine star in the making and a ‘not to be missed’ festival addition this year.

The task of ‘following that’, and rounding the night off, falls to the explosive powerhouse of the Ciaran Ryan Band who immediately confirm they are, musically speaking, no shrinking violets and more than up to the challenge and the thrown-down gauntlet.

The Ciaran Ryan Band on stage at Mareel for the 42nd Shetland Folk Festival. Photo: Marvin Smith

Rarely has a tenor banjo been so skilfully, clinically and subtlety pole axed, while accordion player Andrew Waite can only be likened to Phil Cunningham on steroids.

Pounding bass lines, percussion and electronic wizardry add further energy to the heady mix.

Right from the off you can sense the audience’s adrenalised urgency to dance, perhaps only restricted in a holding back sense by the limited floor space available for this, tempered too perhaps by the brilliant dexterity and sheer listenability of the music itself.

However, there should be no such restrictions or perhaps even finesse in the more cavernous Clickimin Centre later tonight (Friday) when the band feature on the bill for an event entitled ‘Friday Rocks’ which I suspect more than hints at what may very well unfold there. We’ll let you know…

So, our evening of ‘Scots with a Twist’ has more than lived up to its name and we’ve all ended the night in a seriously twisted condition – in the nicest possible way of course.

Davie Gardner

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