ON LAST Thursday’s first night of the 21st Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival your reviewer arrived to some very melodic strains from room 16 as the concert opener, accordionist Rachael-Anne Williamson fronting her five-piece band, launched into a set of finely played jigs.
In striking contrast to its brash folksy counterpart, the box and fiddle bash is relaxed, laid-back, restrained, well-behaved. A notice at the stair head announced cryptically “Islesburgh is a concert and dance only”, while the foyer was almost deserted save for murmuring doormen and the clink of coins as Marina the raffle-seller counted the pounds. In the bar, three obvious visiting artistes in white shirts and dark breeks sipped cokes. The peace was breached when compere Robert Lovie, resplendent in his tartan trews, appeared, enquiring “Anybody seen Larry?” in a voice easily audible in Bressay.
Larry – Larry Gavin from County Clare – was located before Rachael-Anne ended her spot with a flourish and some reels. Irishmen have a rare talent for taking huge melodies out of tiny boxes with very few buttons; with Alan Clark on piano we were treated to superb steady traditional stuff – hornpipes, reels, jigs, played by two masters of the art.
I was charmed by Neil Hardie’s trio from the Borders – box, fiddle and piano; smart players, with more jigs, reels and marches.
It seems no time at all since young Emma Couper from Skeld competed on the Garrison stage in the Young Fiddler of the Year competition; now she’s a teacher at Brae, about to get married this week – and she still plays the fiddle superbly. Fittingly accompanied on piano by her former teacher Alan Gifford, the highlight of Emma’s spot was a classy pair of home-composed tunes: the hornpipe “A S Robertson” and the reel “John Pottinger’s compliments to Ronald Cooper” – the latter bowed with a fluid verve of which the tune’s composer would have been very proud.
This brought us to the interval, which busied up the foyer and the bar – in moderation, for in Lerwick at least, there’s a strange dichotomy at box and fiddle time; the average age of the performers gets younger as a growing majority of the audience qualifies for the bus pass. One almost fears that someday, to parody the words of Eric Bogle, “no one will listen at all”.
Be that as it may, Shetland Fiddlers’ Society amply proved that there’s more than a grain of life in the old dog yet, with a well-received mini-tour of Shetland through its traditional and contemporary fiddle tunes that kicked off the second half in rhythmic and melodic fashion – despite several bum notes from the piano.
The task of following this tour de force fell to solo fiddler Neil Dawson from Alford, who rose easily and very capably to the challenge with a fine choice of tune sets that included a bonny slow air by Margaret Scollay, and a refreshing selection of Canadian reels.
Colin Dewar and his band – James Leask, Dennis Morrison and Gus Millar – finished up the concert with – as you might expect – reels, marches, reels, a polka, a waltz and some jigs. Colin Dewar has been 25 years in the business, and his band sound epitomises the rare telepathy of musicians who play together constantly. That James Leask contributed seamlessly to this sound is a tribute to his abilities, while his solo set came as near to taking the house down as any of the evening.
Before the floor was cleared for the Colin Dewar band to set away the dancing, the meaning of the stair head notice became clear – “Nae Supper!” Tattie crisp sales soared in the bar, and many, your reviewer included, slunk away from the musical feast in search of another.