By NEIL RIDDELL
FIDDLE Frenzy ’08 kicked off in style at the Garrison Theatre on Tuesday evening with a fine performance from Quarff lass Jenna Reid and her brand new band to officially open the festival.
The frenzy being twinned, for the first time, with a storytelling celebration meant the evening began with a whimsical story from Lawrence Tulloch of Yell, a slightly eerie trowie tale of the perils inherent in Shetland grooms from days of yore meddling with skulls. Tulloch is a warm, homely and engaging teller of stories and it was a nice touch.
Interestingly, the audience was heavily populated by tourists, some of whom needed local assistance for any titbits lost in translation throughout the evening.
Next up, the Shetland Fiddlers continued the wedding theme with a host of tunes which would have traditionally been performed at weddings across the isles in the 1800s, helpfully narrated by piano accompanist Charlie Simpson.
We then had a trio of well-performed sets from three young traditional music tutors who, under the expert guidance of Margaret Scollay, have been learning tunes to pass onto the next generation.
The last act before the interval was Bryan Gear, performing with Violet Tulloch on piano and Jack Robertson on bass. The amiable Gear is clearly a master of his instrument and his standard of musicianship immediately elevates proceedings, the performance enthralling the crowd to the extent that – even as
a support act – he was beckoned back for an encore following huge applause. The highlight of his varied set was a slow, elegant waltz, an as-yet unpublished tune written by Tom Anderson, and Gear (off to perform in Canada with Tulloch later this year) is arguably the best fiddler on show across all the acts.
After a welcome break for fresh air – the theatre was unusually hot and sweaty for a seated gig – there was another trowie-themed tall tale, this time told by Davy Cooper, before the Jenna Reid Band took to the stage for an impressive, if not especially “frenzied”, hour-long set.
They began with just Reid, her sister Bethany and percussionist Iain Sandilands for the opening set of reels before introducing the rest of the six-piece band. Flautist James Thomson, from the Borders, guitarist Kevin Mackenzie and Dunblane bassist Duncan Lyall completed the line-up and they launched into an excellent set of jigs and reels from County Tyrone in Ireland.
Jenna has succeeded in putting together an excellent band, with a slow waltz lilting along with minimalist beats; even with six people on stage each instrument is given plenty of space to breathe. Sandilands played a variety of fittingly restrained percussion, including shakers and a beat box, to good effect throughout.
“This is the furthest north I’ve played this year and the hottest place I’ve played in,” Reid noted as she wiped away the sweat after a splendid, rollicking few minutes with an almost rock-like backing from MacKenzie, Lyle and Sandilands on Laughing Girl, the high water mark of the performance drawn from the album of the same name which was released earlier this year.
If there is a quibble, it is that they did not perform a great deal of material from that album, while Reid – who sings on two tracks, including the excellent Hams O’ Muckle Roe, on the CD – perhaps does not yet feel confident enough in her vocals to sing live, a pity as it could have really added something to the show.
All in all, though, the Jenna Reid Band demonstrate a fine degree of musical depth and variety, with an upbeat jazz feel to the backing on one set of reels, while there is a touching moment as the two sisters perform a heartfelt, reflective ode to their late grandparents Willie and Irene Reid. They finish things up by hurtling expertly through a set of tunes completed by The Hurricane, the band in boisterous, rockin’ out mode and they left the stage to a deservedly rich reception from the appreciative audience.