2009 Folk Festival: Harmonies of Madison Violet were just sublime

THURSDAY – South Nesting

Canadian duo Madison Violet stole the show on the opening night at South Nesting Hall with a stunning performance of their bittersweet brand of Americana and tight, heavenly harmonies. In the process they set a high watermark for the weekend which – to this listener’s ears at least – was not to be breached over the subsequent three days.

Indeed, the Toronto-based pairing of Lisa MacIsaac and Brenley MacEachern seemed to be the pick of the bunch for a large number of festival-goers over the weekend. Although they have been on the road for some nine years and recently supported the excellent American singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, Madison Violet are yet to become a household name.

But the evidence provided by the tracks they reeled off from their superb latest record, No Fool For Trying, suggests that they are most certainly deserving of a wider audience.

The concept could not be simpler, with the two girls trading lead and backing vocals and playing a mixture of acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin and fiddle, accompanied on double bass by Adrian Lawryshyn.

The rootsy sound they peddle is as old as the hills, but the songs pack a strong emotional punch and their harmonies on the set-opener – the title track from the new album – were as gorgeous as they were spine-tingling.

Lyrically they demonstrate an understanding of what it’s like to come from a small town, where every movement or action is constantly under the microscope. The bluegrass stomp of Never Saw The Ending, the closing number from their 2006 album Caravan, drew on that theme and contained some of the kootier and more upfront lines of their set – most notably the bit about shagging, or not, in the back of a pick-up truck.

Madison Violet’s promotional literature trails them as the would-be end product of a lovechild collectively produced by Gillian Welch, Steve Earle and Alison Krauss, a description which isn’t too far off the mark.

But there is also a tinge of gravelly alt-country queen Lucinda Williams in the voice of Mac­Eachern, a lived-in quality which adds extra gravitas to their sad country songs. Incidentally, the hint of throatiness in her voice was a good bit more noticeable by the time of Sunday night’s foy appearances.

Stand-outs in a virtually flawless set were yet more delicious har­mon­ies on Lauralee and Crying, while perhaps best of all was the slow-paced, tear-jerking homage to MacEachern’s brother – who was killed a couple of years ago – on Wood Shop.

Madison Violet appeared second-to-last at the gig in Nesting, which immediately stood out as one of the finest line-ups of the weekend – all the 100-odd tickets were snapped up in double quick time.

Earlier on the evening’s pro­ceedings were very ably opened by young combo Fiddle Finale, who include among their number acclaimed local fiddlers Maggie Adamson and Chapman Cheng, before the audience welcomed Hungarian fiddler Jani Lang as part of a six-piece band.

His group got off to a highly encouraging start with seven minutes of hugely varied gypsy folk, a meandering groove, shuff­ling bass lines and bongos, with a hint of jazz added by Scottish guesting musician Fraser Fifield.

There were bits and pieces of Celtic sounds in the Balkan and gypsy songs, which were mainly drawn from Lang’s native Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria.

The largely upbeat Eastern Euro­pean sounds were extremely well-played, with a very tight rhythm section, while Lang himself – who now lives and teaches violin in Aberdeen – is a highly accomplished performer.

He was unable to find any takers for his kind offer to get involved in a spot of belly-dancing on the stirring traditional number Mahala, a song which originated in Turkey before becoming popularised in Bucharest. If there is a criticism, it’s that their sound reverted to type a little as the set went on and they were not quite able to match the impact of the opening pieces.

Also on the bill was local singer Freda Leask, whose six-song set included three covers, backed by the extremely talented Shoormal band, boasting two outstanding guitarists in Trevor Smith and Gordon Tulloch, with the odd flour­ish of funky bass from Bong­shang’s Bryan Peterson.

Leask is an adept vocalist, if the more conventional of the trio who sing in Shoormal, and demonstrated that she has written some pretty good stuff, the highlight of her own material being Man of Madison, written after a chance encounter with an American man from a form­er black slave family in the deep south.

Among the covers was a faithful reading of traditional standard You Belong To Me, recently recorded by folk darling Kate Rusby, and a stirring and decidedly funked-up take on the old bluegrass classic Sweetheart of Mine to conclude the set.

Closers on the night were Astu­rian traditional quintet Felpeyu, who hail from northern Spain and played a combination of vocal songs and instrumental sets to demonstrate their mastery of the fiddle, flute, accordion and Asturian bagpipes.

They have been together for coming on two decades now and went through a horrific tragedy three years ago when two band members were killed and four others seriously injured when their van toppled while they were tour­ing Spain. It is good to see that the survivors have recovered and are back on stage doing what they do best.

Felpeyu seemed to go down extremely well with the Nesting audience and some of the younger members of the crowd were seeing them for a second time that day, after they had paid a visit to the local primary school that morning. They are an extremely affable bunch and purveyors of a nice enough and in places powerful dancey groove, although their 45-minute set did tend to blend into one after the halfway stage.

Neil Riddell


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.