OVER 20 years ago I found myself living in Hamnavoe, Burra Isle. My brother had been with the Burra boats and I had my first stint at the fishing aboard the Opportune.
A regular visitor to the house, more than often full of the “joys of life”, always insisted on either of the two Thomas Fraser cassettes I had, such was his fondness for the man and his music.
Eventually I ended up giving them to him one evening. I later discovered that this was not an unusual occurrence and visits to various households in the area meant that he had a cupboard full of the Memories of Yesterday cassettes. I tell this story to illustrate the fact that many Burra folk hold this man’s music in their hearts.
Thomas Fraser was a consummate performer, especially of Jimmy Rodgers songs. At one time in Shetland it was commonplace to hear someone ask for “a pound of baker’s biscuits and the latest Jimmy Rodgers record please” in local shops.
Thomas’s remarkable story is well documented and is to be the subject of a television programme soon. His songs give us a direct link to a time when Jimmy Rodgers was all the rage in Shetland, probably equal to Hank Williams in later years. At parties at a house at the south end of Lerwick a friend will still readily break into renditions of Rodgers songs with little encouragement.
Listening to Thomas’s songs it is almost impossible to know of his Burra background; he could so easily be that “Singing Brakeman”, although I do remember during the classic Somewhere Over the Rainbow instead of “Drops”, troubles melted “like Lemon Draps”.
I’ve always meant to attend at least one of the annual Thomas Fraser Memorial Festival concerts and last Thursday I got my chance. It was fine to see well-kent faces in the audience as well as on the stage.
The concert kicked off a little late, as this was the first night and there was some fine-tuning to be done on the technical side.
The night also celebrated the launch of a new CD of Thomas Fraser archive material, That Far Away Land.
May, Mackie and Rhonda had the unenviable task of launching the festival. They took to the stage bathed in blue light, under a portrait of Thomas, and after a fine introduction from our compères Geordie Pottinger and John William Ward, the set was soon under way.
The addition of Rhonda’s richer vocals and Gemma Donald’s fiddle sees a shift in the band’s sound compared with the last time I saw them: a more bluegrass, folksy sound, as opposed to alternative country, less rocky with vocal harmonies prevailing – Mackie picks a mean banjo.
The Pain of Lovin’ You, I’ll Take the Pain and Silver Haired Daddy of Mine stood out, all this ably abetted by the solid bass of Hamish Henderson.
Now at this stage things got a little confused in my notebook; the original running order had changed and things were a little tricky in the half light, but I know who began and ended the concert and, well, they were all definitely in between those parameters.
We’ll move on to Eddie Williamson and Ian Stewart, the Scalloway contingent. Eddie is singer Astrid Williamson’s dad and he and Ian were old stalwarts of Thomas’s.
Eddie confessed to a need of a sheepdog backstage and to being a little under-rehearsed. This more relaxed approach worked well with the audience. Rattlin’ Bow reminded me of a Josh White song, with a similar structure. Ian’s style was more pensive on the semi-acoustic. Old Dutch Mill by a Little Stream showed his versatility in a swing jazz way. Eddie ended the set with a fine rendition of Foggy Mountain Breakdown on banjo.
Now to the Pottinger brothers. Introducing the Chet Atkins song Geordie asked: How’s the World Treating You? and Ivor replied: “Braaly weel”. Geordie was at pains to tell me later that he had returned home for his teeth and a belt to hadd up his breeks!
In the Jailhouse Now and Sick, Sad and Lonesome Tonight were probably the best of their set – in my humble opinion of course.
And then to Gibbie, the suave dark horse of the trio that night: Thomas Fraser was a good hand at the yodelling and Gibbie continues that tradition. I always think that it’s a brave man to tackle yodelling. John William said that the joke backstage was that Gibbie yodelled in a Shetland accent. I have to say his performance was impressive, you could almost picture the mountains and imagine the echo.
Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan brought some real cool from the sunshine state: Californian cats playing in the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee mode and grinning like Cheshire cats. They are slick performers; a delivery with humour, sweet picking and a mastery on the “Mississippi saxophone” (or the mouthie to you and me).
Big Robbie and Brian Nicholson were next and I wondered if there was room on the stage for these two larger than life musicians. But Big Robbie and band are seasoned entertainers and they certainly know how to win over an audience.
The accordion gave a new twist to the Mississippi River Blues. An Elvis song was followed by a Charlie Pride medley during which I worryingly found myself singing along to the clichéd Crystal Chandelier – what was going on?
The Glaswegian Moonshiners were the last act: Pure Bluegrass with a new member bringing freshness to the sound.
The evening was brought to a close with a packed stage and the whole ensemble singing You Are My Sunshine – a great ending to a thoroughly entertaining night.
From 7pm to midnight is a long haul. There was an interval where you could purchase soft drinks, but a cup of tea and a bannock would not have gone amiss.
Certainly you were spoiled for choice as far as artists were concerned. Maybe spreading the festival over four nights would be a solution or using the south end hall as well – just a small gripe.
On returning to the town I discovered how late it was and how little traffic there was around, when the police stopped me to inform me one of my lights was out. After explaining where I had been the officer leaned in to detect incriminating odours. I explained it had been a “good-living affair” and so it had been.