2009 Folk Festival: Mad Violet, Zar and New Rope Band lead the way

SUNDAY – Clickimin

There is no doubt Emily Smith has got talent. Since becoming the BBC young traditional musician of the year in 2002 various awards have winged her way, including being named the Scots Singer of the Year at last year’s Trad Awards.

Perhaps a longer slot would have suited her better – by all accounts she was very well received at her concerts in the Lerwick Legion and Mossbank – but as the opening act at the Clickimin Foy she was disappointing.

Smith has both a lovely appearance and a lovely voice, but to really win over Sunday’s crowd she needed better raw material. Sunset Hymn caused no real stir while the second offering, Robert Burns’ Silver Tassie, was, well, just another Burns song. She did succeed in resurrecting things somewhat with Butterfly, but I’m sure she’s much better than this evidence suggests.

The audience needed some livening up and they got it from Saltfishforty, who are fiddler Douglas Montgomery and guitarist/singer Brian Cromarty, better known to Shetlanders as two of the dynamic Orkney band The Chair.

The tempo was maintained by the Jani Lang Band, an Aberdeen-based collection of Hungarian, Scottish, Irish and Egyptian musicians with a penchant for gypsy-style rhythms. Again a 15-minute session can hardly do them justice, as they just appeared to be warming to the task when it all had to end.

The folk festival’s emblem may be a fiddle but there are years when the whole event seems far too heavily influenced by that one instrument, and I have to say that this was one of them. Only two of the 14 visiting bands were comp­letely minus the old catgut, Aussie bluesman Hat Fitz who was to come later and the next on stage, Box Club.

Four accordions, drums, bass and a guitar player who possesses as much energy as Angus Young of ACDC, this Glasgow outfit were a lively bunch indeed, and the applause they received was the biggest of the night so far.

Anarkali, a traditional folk band with Scottish and Irish influences, failed to hit the mark with me, but Zar from Denmark, returning to the festival five years after their debut, more than restored the balance. A very melodic opener was followed by Golden Sun, where the audience were asked to join in and whole­heartedly agreed, and a final set of blistering reels. Welcome back guys!

If it’s steady, rollin’ blues you want than Hat Fitz, the wild man from Oz, accompanied by his drummer/washboard sidekick, was just the ticket. More than one person has compared him to the new sensation Seasick Steve and he did not disappoint, chugging away prolifically with Miss Mabel Blues in particular. Funny thoughts some­times creep into your head and I couldn’t help wondering what these two, plus the Saltfishforty boys, would have sounded like together. Maybe an ardent clubber will know if they actually did get it together.

After a break, kicking off the second half of the foy were an act guaranteed to cheer up even the most miserable of hearts – The New Rope String Band.

It was so good to see Pete Challoner and Tim Dalling, formerly of the “Old” version of the band, back in the isles. The third original member, Joe Scurfield, was tragically killed in a hit and run accident in Newcastle four years ago, and some people were wondering if Shetland would ever see this magical pair again.

Thankfully they did return, this time with new members Jock Tyldesley and Vera van Heeringen, and their special brand of entertain­ment is as good as ever.

Their illustrated “journey around Shetland” was superb, as was their memorable, and original, take on going up and down the scales. Bairns and adults all loved them, and let’s hope they come again.

Whatever the festival throws up, one thing is certain: people will always disagree on the merits of the bands. One member of this office said on Friday he wasn’t really struck on Felpeyu, so I had formed an opinion they may be disappointing.

Not a bit of it. They sounded excellent, with Diego Pangua’s Asturian pipes and his likeable banter adding a nice touch.

I had already heard Dàimh, Madison Violet and Frigg at Cullivoe and their shortened stints were both well received, as was the Brock McGuire Band, possibly the most polished of any performers on show during the entire weekend.

Okay, I may already have slagged off the fiddle just a smidgeon, but when you have a player as good as Manus McGuire, allied to the formidable accordionist Paul Brock, maybe it’s time for a rethink. You cannot help but admire any kind of music when it’s played in a masterly fashion, and their Bluebell Polka, The Darling Girl from Clare and Turkey in the Straw were fine examples.

That only leaves French Canadians Vishtèn, twin sisters from Prince Edward Island and two lads from the much smaller Magdalen Islands further north. Faultless playing, singing and step-dancing all contributed to their performance.

Over the past few years the festival has set a high standard, although there are many out there who regularly bemoan the lack of more acts from further afield, which add a different kind of flavour. Maintaining that standard was always going to be tough, and the 2009 event definitely dipped somewhat.

Next year sees the 30th anniversary and I would give the organisers two pieces of advice. They have already showed they can listen by ditching the compères so you never know.

Firstly, by all means spread the net wider – African, South American, eastern Europe or whatever. Maybe there’s another Hanngai or Awatinas out there waiting for the call.

And secondly, why not consider a bigger name from nearer home. For example, only last summer I bumped into Dick Gaughan in Fort William, and asked him why he’s never been back. “I’d love to,” he replied, “but they never ask me.” Go on Davie or Mhari, give him a bell!

Jim Tait


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