THREE nights of wonderful harmony from both local and visiting artistes – that is probably how best to describe the Thomas Fraser Memorial Festival.
As I arrived at the Hamnavoe Hall on Saturday evening the first on stage, May, Mackie & Rhonda, were setting the scene for what was to follow.
Mackie Sutherland was proving his versatility, handling the dobro with the same assurance he has with the electric guitar during a country rock number, as the band treated the audience to a couple of songs off the latest and fourth Thomas Fraser album That Far Away Land.
Continuing the harmony aspect were the Pottinger Brothers, with the three alternating with the lead spot, Geordie and Ivor on How’s the World Treating You and Carolina Sunshine Girl and Gibbie showing remarkable yodelling prowess on He’s in the Jailhouse Now and Swiss Mountain Yodel.
Apparently Gibbie was in the process of shaking off a heavy cold but at least one festival buff reckoned it was the “best they’d ever heard him”. Had he found some miracle cure or did the surroundings work their magic?
Laeverick features the vocal talents of Jenny Keldie (formerly Napier, now domiciled in Orkney), Rhonda Simpson and Marie Pottinger.
With some excellent backing they treated us to a host of melodious offerings, including the Wailin’ Jennies’ Live and Die Young and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s His Life is Left to Me.
Jenny originally emerged as a talented fiddler, winning one of the Young Fiddler of the Year competitions, but it is her crystal clear singing which now takes the breath away.
After some traditional dance music from The Alan Tulloch Band, the first segment of the night was completed by Roberto Cassani. This Glaswegian-Italian is just the kind of guy the folk festival should consider bringing up if they insist on having compères – his song about divorce was absolutely brilliant.
The Moonshiners, surely the best bluegrass band in Scotland, provided a rollicking resumption after the first break. John McAleese on guitar and vocals has replaced Ian Mairs in the band and together with Phil Sakerski (banjo/dobro), Alasdair Kennedy (guitar/mandolin) and Jimmy Moon (double bass) they were appreciated by everyone. Some Old Day was the stand-out for me.
More subtle harmony came courtesy of The Wishart Family, with Brian Wishart and his sisters Mavis and Linda. So subtle that when someone whispered at the bar a woman intervened with the cutting words: “There’s chairs in the foyer if you want to have a yarn.” Employ this woman at the folk festival I say, where chattering punters are much more commonplace.
Speaking of pains in the ass – with apologies to the festival organisers as they run a pretty good show already – 12 separate bands is maybe trying to cram too much in. Perhaps eight per evening, with a half-hour slot each, would be a more realistic proposal. Over six hours in a hard seat does nothing for posterior comfort.
Anyway, gripe over. Back to the action. Making the annual return to his homeland was Burra favourite Arthur Pottinger, older brother of the aforementioned trio.
Starting things in typical fashion with a couple of Hank Snow numbers, his smooth and polished delivery cannot be understated, and he had an admirable backing band in Gemma Donald (fiddle), Brian Nicholson (guitar) and Hamish Henderson (bass).
Arthur explained later in the evening that he cut his teeth with Manson Grant & The Dynamos, a claim to fame he shares, incidentally, with Mackie Sutherland. The reason I mention that is because the legendary Caithness outfit are back in Shetland this weekend for a long-awaited return.
After the raffle and a nourishing cup of home-made soup, the stage was cleared for arguably the biggest names of the evening, US blues masters Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan.
Having shared a stage with among others Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles and Van Morrison, these guys are obviously no mean performers. Their chugging blend of blues, jazz and bluegrass is eminently listenable, Ball coaxing the most incredible sounds from his harmonica while Sultan’s ragtime guitar solo was utterly superb.
There was more to follow, including Scalloway’s Eddie Williamson and another homegrown boy done good “Big” Robbie Cumming, but sadly this reviewer failed to last the pace and went for a breath of fresh air.
As I walked past Setter, home of the late Thomas Fraser, I couldn’t help wondering what the man himself, a notoriously shy individual, would have made of it all . . .