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Arts / Sunny haze as Da Big Kirk hosts rich musical feast

The Hackles performing at the Big Kirk at the 42nd Shetland Folk Festival. Photo: Dave Donaldson

THE ABRUPT and very welcome arrival of summer on day one of the 42nd Shetland Folk Festival meant Da Big Kirk was bathed in hazy sunlight for much of Thursday night’s excellent opening concert.

Some spectators even seized the opportunity to legitimately don a pair of shades indoors, while after the winter we’ve endured few seemed overly perturbed to find themselves overheating for a few hours.

Hundreds packed into the most capacious of Lerwick’s kirks to witness a suitably varied quartet of acts – two local, one American, one Swedish – deliver an extremely enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Closing out the night were The Hackles, who brought their refined sounds, songs and harmonies all the way from Astoria, Oregon, a small town on the Columbia river around 100 miles from Portland.

It might not enjoy the renown of music towns like Nashville, but the Pacific Northwest is something a hotbed for American folk music with an indie sensibility. The region is home to wonderful bands like The Decemberists and best-in-class songwriters such as M. Ward, Alela Diane, Jeffrey Martin and Anna Tivel.

Indeed, The Hackles recently backed Diane on a festive record, while two thirds of the group – multi-instrumentalists Kati Claborn and Luke Ydstie – cut their teeth as part of Portland indie-folk outfit Blind Pilot.

This is only their second UK tour, but unlikely to be their last. The trio weave a powerful sound from their instruments – two guitars, banjo and, courtesy of third member Halli Anderson, violin – and boast three-part vocal harmonies that are rich and robust.

Set highlights included Angela, a smart meditation on family, memory and loss that saw its verses’ gentle melodic strum give way to an emotional gut-punch of a chorus.

The trio made full use of the kirk’s pin-sharp acoustics, delivering a moving rendition of Michael Hurley’s Werewolf Song unamplified from the floor.

But it was the sheer quality of their own songwriting that really stood out. The upbeat The Show Must Go On and its “you cannot take it with you when you go” refrain was delivered with subtlety and conviction by Claborn.

With the evening daylight just about gone, there was time for The Hackles to encore with another great song – a newie named Bugs in the Bed – to stylishly round off the evening.

Their dextrous musicianship and vocal prowess were very much in keeping with what had come before.

Gemma Donald & Shetland Swing are fresh from their own enormously successful headline concerts at Mareel and Clickimin over the winter.

Local act Gemma Donald & Shetland Swing impressed the audience at the Big Kirk. Photo: Dave Donaldson

The eight-piece ensemble promised “the best of Western swing, with a Shetland twist” – and that’s precisely what they delivered, with no little gusto.

As the band rattled through nine numbers to rapturous applause, most of the audience were too busy tapping their feet along to notice that half an hour had elapsed by the time we reached set closer Into Each Life.

It was the last in a succession of powerful vocal turns from frontwoman Gemma Small who, mid-pregnancy (“but tonight is not the night!”), admitted the heat in the room was getting to her a little.

She and Bryan Gear offered a fired-up twin fiddle onslaught of the highest order, buttressed by guitar and pedal steel licks courtesy of Norman ‘Girsie’ Goudie and Jackie Robertson and nifty accordion from Alan Small. Alison Kay Anderson delivered a beautifully soulful lead vocal on Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies.

Prior to the interval, festival returnees Ahlberg, Ek & Roskwall were joined by vocalist Ulrika Bodén, whose swallow-high opening notes immediately commanded everyone’s attention.

The trio – who last visited Shetland in 2015 – have put together a new repertoire for the collaboration. It sees them meld traditional Swedish tunes and polkas, played on violin, harp guitar, nyckelharpa and moraharpa, with songs platforming Bodén’s ethereal singing.

Possessing a voice that oscillates between sweet and haunting, she offered up Swedish folk hymns including the tale of a 19th century woman’s lifelong sadness having been betrothed away from her home village, the menu for a wedding lasting 15 days, and the way both cattle and human welcome the arrival of summer.

Perhaps the high point of their set was a pair of imaginatively arranged, immaculately played “party polskas” which raised the tempo and ran Gemma & co close for the night’s noisiest applause.

First up, on their home patch, had been the Shetland Community Choir, opening the night fittingly with Rowin’ Foula Doon, enticing an eager audience to sing along with Merry Boys o’ Greenland before being joined by Bodén as they tackled Swedish song Sköna maj, välkommen with aplomb. Happy May, welcome, indeed!

Neil Riddell 

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