THURSDAY – Lerwick Legion
The opening concert at the Legion was, for me, a bit of a mixed bag, but a great start to the festival nonetheless.
Stand-in compere for the evening was New Rope String Band member Tim Dalling, who did a fine job of introducing the acts and kept the eager audience laughing throughout.
Opening on the night and easing festival goers into the weekend was local band The Bleach Boys. Made up of John Boxwell, Roy Tait, Davie Henry, Bobby Gear and Peter Gilmore, they played a mix of Scottish traditional songs and covers.
For their second song, a homage to tatties and herring, the band invited the crowd to join in, but so early on in the night it made for a fairly unconvincing sing along. The band’s short set was brought to a close with a cover of The Streets of London, which got more response from the crowd.
Next up was the first of the visiting acts, the Emily Smith Band. Hailing from Dumfries, Smith won the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award 2002 and the Scots Singer of the Year 2008/09.
The award-winning singer launched into an a cappella Scots ballad, When I Was Sweet 16. Her soft and fluid vocals were then backed by her band, who are Jamie McLennan on fiddle and vocals, Duncan Lyall on double bass and Ross Milligan on guitar.
The set consisted of a mix of traditional Scottish folk songs and her own material, which I preferred, not being a huge fan of Robert Burns.
Smith possesses a great vocal range and sings in an effortless style, which was complemented by harmonies from McLennan, whose brilliant playing and stage presence reminded me a little of Chris Thile from American bluegrass band Nickel Creek.
Sunset Hymn and the haunting Audience of Souls stood out for me. Written after a visit to a graveyard in her home town, Audience of Souls speaks about the choices people make in life and whether they would change them with hindsight.
Smith’s warm down to earth stage presence had the crowd laughing between songs and the audience (or the women in the crowd anyway) seemed to approve of the theme of men being thrown in the sea, which ran through many of the traditional songs like Caledonia and May Colvin.
The set was finished with a song written at a festival in Canada, Butterfly, in which the crowd was again invited to sing along to the chorus of “butterfly swoop, butterfly soar…” which, we were informed, had previously been mistaken for “butterfly soup”. With more harmonies from McLennan and a funky double bass section it made for a cheery end to the band’s set.
The task of following was given to local act Sheerlin. Folk duo John Izatt and Ann Eunson, on acoustic guitars and a bongo drum, played a handful of covers ranging from traditional Scottish ballads to songs by Simon and Garfunkel and Emmylou Harris.
Although better at the traditional songs, I’m sorry to say they didn’t do it for me. Ann’s vocals couldn’t stand up to the material they were attempting and to be sandwiched between such startling talent as Emily Smith and the next act, the New Rope String Band, made it all the more apparent.
Considering the wealth of musical talent that is in Shetland, the show seemed a bit of an oddity and not entirely up to the standard you’d normally expect from the festival.
The crowd were in for a treat, however, with the next act. Making a welcome return and with two new members, festival favourites the New Rope String Band announced their arrival with the aid of a loud speaker and bounced on stage to cheers and applause.
Inviting us to join them on an “ear-hole adventure”, Jock Tyldesley, Vera Van Heeringen, Pete Challoner and Tim Dalling were a breath of fresh air. Or rather a hurricane. Their creative act consisted of a mix of music and gags which included a game of fiddle tennis, and an amazing display of timing with a life-sized musical scale which had holes cut out for the notes. Each band member then stuck their head through and sang a note each to form a hilarious song.
It’s difficult to choose between them as every song was brilliant in different ways, but the one about the Cuban revolution, dedicated to the late Old Rope String Band member Joe Scurfield, was priceless.
People in the crowd were bent double laughing, but among the hilarity were some beautiful tunes and the band’s genuinely outstanding musical talent is clear.
Their show ended with a bang, quite literally, with a glitter explosion and rapturous applause from the audience, whose reaction confirmed my feeling that it is impossible not to love them.
The final act of the night was Finnish/Norwegian band Frigg. The seven-piece outfit consisted mainly of fiddles, accompanied by Antti Järvelä on double bass, Petri Prauda playing mandolin and Finnish bagpipes and Tuomas Logren on guiter.
Taking inspiration from subjects as diverse and delightful as a trip to Egypt and a resulting case of diarrhoea, a bad hangover on an economy class flight and racing car drivers, their set was a fast-paced spree through several reels and polkas.
However, unusual arrangements, vocals and the inclusion of a few well placed shouts of “hej!” in some of the tunes set them apart from being a run of the mill fiddle group and it’s clear their influences include those outside traditional folk music. The tune Keidas in particular stood out for me, having been composed by Prauda while still at school.
Their foot-stomping music was a brilliant end to the first night of the festival, leaving the crowd hungry for what was to come over the next few days.