2009 Folk Festival: Wild man from Oz stood out among fiddle groups and wispy female singers

SATURDAY – Walls Hall

Sunlight was still gleaming through the curtains as the first artists on the bill were taking to the stage for one of the weekend’s more eclectic musical gatherings which, remark­ably for this year’s line-up especi­ally, featured just two fiddles between the five acts.

Kicking things off was local singer-songwriter Jordan Ogg, latterly of Radio Shetland fame, who seems to be maturing as a live performer and becoming more comfortable on the stage. His curious lyrical tales take all manner of small details of nature and day-to-day life as their inspiration and his effeminate voice and delicate strumming could not have been more of a contrast to what was to follow when Hat Fitz settled down next to the microphone.

The man from Queensland’s heavily-amplified acoustic blues playing and growling voice were accompanied by a superb drummer known only as Hodgy.

The set focused primarily on his ferocious renditions of early Delta blues classics from the 1920s and 1930s and he was able to weave a pretty hypnotic spell with some truly outstanding work on a battered old six string. It was a frenetically-paced racket for the most part, aided by the sharply-timed and frantic drums ‘n’ washboard of Hodgy – how he has the energy and arm-power for the latter is anyone’s guess.

Hat Fitz’s great advantage was in being so different from every other artist on a bill which had a heavy predilection for traditional fiddle groups – no space this year, for instance, for anything African or Asian – and wispy female singers, several of whom were excellent, incidentally. That meant he was the only performer with a truly filthy and decadent side to his music – he is not known as the “wild man” of Australian blues for nothing.

He also possesses the kind of voluptuous beard, exceptional even by the standards of a folk festival, which makes it nigh on impossible to establish the man’s age. But there’s no question his resplendent face fur and deep voice make him look and sound far beyond his years.

There’s maybe not quite enough light and shade in his music to sustain interest for the full 45 minutes, though he does vary the pace to give his compadre a bit of a breather with the slower Easy Rider, and his beguiling slide work is a joy to behold. He’s sure to go down a storm on his mammoth nine-week tour of Ireland, which kicked off this week. And maybe if wir Jordan smokes enough rollies and drinks enough liquor over the next 30 years he’ll evolve into an angrier-sounding version of Muddy Waters too – or perhaps not.

Occupying the third slot of the evening was Rummle, a young and still-evolving Shetland seven-piece. Their line-up contains a brimful of immensely talented musicians and it is encouraging to see a traditional group springing up who are willing to tamper with the trad template, if perhaps not as much as they did during last year’s performances.

The rousing instrumental pieces tended to leave the fiddle to the fore, with the only grumble being that it meant less of an opportunity for the saxophone solos and intricate guitar workouts they have previously demonstrated to such success.

Singer Carlyn Grains lent her highly impressive vocal pipes to two songs, though the choice of coffee table favourite Norah Jones for a cover perhaps did not play to the band’s strengths. But it was a very enjoyable set and they are undoubtedly an outfit with great potential; it will be intriguing to see how they choose to develop.

One of the new golden girls of Scotland’s flourishing folk scene, thoughtful and supremely talented young singer-songwriter Emily Smith from Dumfries, was next to take to the stage. The ability to fully enjoy her music will to some extent depend on how much of the Burnsier-than-thou territory you can handle – there were moments on Saturday evening, particularly during The Ploughman, which served as a very good reminder of how fortunate we are up north to be quite far removed from the more trite elements of Scots culture.

Next year’s Homecoming Scot­land carry-on, as part of which she is lending her dulcet tones to an album of Burns material, sadly seems guaranteed to bring out the most hackneyed, heather ‘n’ bagpipes clichés of the Rabbie-obsessed mafia.

Not that she should be tainted merely by association, but it is frustrating, nonetheless, because Smith – who plays piano and accordion beautifully and has a great, great voice – is so much more successful when she performs her own material.

Self-penned tracks from last year’s Too Long Away album were far stronger, in particular the funereal-paced Come Home Pretty Bird and the seasonal transformation of Winter Song, comfortably putting her in the same bracket as, say, Karine Polwart.

To close a very enjoyable, if again at four and a half hours slightly overlong, evening’s aural stimulation, Glasgow-based Box Club were on hand with what can only be described as a veritable feast for accordion lovers. Eschewing Shetlanders’ favourite stringed instrument of choice in favour of four colour-coordinated button boxes is a bold move (which some would no doubt class as a heinous crime) and, thankfully, not nearly as annoying as it sounds.

I’m slightly at a loss as to why, or how, it worked but the underlying groove from their meaty rhythm section served as a good base. It would be remiss not to single out their guitarist for mention too, a man who looked positively en­thralled just to be on the stage but whose flowing locks and head-banging demeanour suggested he would have been more at home in some hair-rock band or other from the eighties.

Anyhow, they seemed to revel in mocking their own penchant for all things accordion, managed to make a pretty formidable rocked-up noise and, late in the day, were even granted their wish of getting a punter to dance on the table.

Neil Riddell


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