There was an official invasion of Shetlanders in Stromness at the weekend – but they were extremely well behaved. No late nights, no tunes, no drinking and just generally no craic.
Okay, I’m fibbing! Indeed, you have to admire the Orkney Folk Festival committee for being brave enough to invite Fiddlers’ Bid, Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag and other young Shetland Session musicians to the same festival. As Bob Gibbon put it, they had invited “more Shelties than you can shake a stick at” and that was before you start prodding all the other Shetlanders that frequented (in force) the hostelries of Stromness for four days and four nights.
Gemma Donald, Ryan Couper, Darren Stewart and Mary Rutherford were invited as the official Shetland Session musicians and, on more than one occasion, I overheard folk asking at which concerts they could catch this fantastic band, i.e. without being squashed up against the walls of the Ferry Inn or Stromness Hotel.
Other than the fact that most concerts were sold out anyway, the answer was “pubs only” which is very much in tune with the organising of this annual event. Although there are plenty of impromptu sessions too (which, I have to say the Shelties largely predominated this year), their organising committee schedule acts to play sessions in selected watering holes of Stromness at particular times during the day. Both Fullsceilidh and Fiddlers’ Bid were also part of this arrangement, much to the delight of passers-by on the gloriously sunny Friday afternoon when a session was taken to the benches in front of the Flattie Bar.
Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag had been invited down to perform at Saturday’s “Academy Club” gig at the Stromness Academy Lecture Theatre. This event was formerly referred to as their Festival Stomp and plenty of stomping there was, particularly during a Canadian barn dance that Maurice Henderson amazingly managed to initiate.
Personally, I was thrilled to finally catch up with them, having continuously missed them at their recent appearances and after hearing rave reviews of their performance at the Shetland Folk Festival just three weeks previously.
Well, the reviews were more than justified because this band is “scorching”. Their performance of traditional Shetland, Nordic and other Celtic-influenced folk music was extremely accomplished and tight (perhaps because they are not long out of the recording studio) but they are so entertaining to watch too. Their onstage banter is hilarious but with up to six frenzied fiddlers at a time, it was also fantastic to hear the added dimensions to the overall sound with the occasional swapping of a fiddle for a mandolin, mandola or melodeon. My only criticism, as a fellow Shetlander, is that I felt a bit like a tour guide the whole weekend having to explain the band meaning and how to pronounce their name.
Headlining the officially programmed music of around 20 visiting bands alongside the likes of Washington’s Bruce Molsky, Scotland’s Karine Polwart and Ireland’s Beoga were Shetland’s official global ambassadors, Fiddlers’ Bid.
Having been so overwhelmed by their new material which they showcased at Celtic Connections this year (and by overwhelmed, I mean having a huge lump in my throat, tears rolling down my cheeks and being speechless for what has to be one of the first times in my life) I put myself through the emotional turmoil twice in Orkney.
Unlike Glasgow though, where they performed their entire new album, they played a mixture of both old and new material in Orkney. This was partly because their very last minute stand-in guitarist (the rockin’ Mike Bryan from Box Club) had less than 24 hours to familiarise himself with the pre-mastered copy of their forthcoming album.
He did an absolutely stunning job of it too, allowing Orkney audiences to be treated to a tantalizing taste of the Bid’s unreleased material. This included a mind-blowing 14-minute marathon set that began with Shetland tune Simon’s Wart and coincidentally included a powerful composition by Pascal Gemme of visiting Quebecois band Genticorum.
During Fiddlers’ Bid sets at the festival club and the Stromness Town Hall, there were as many “wee-uchs” as there were moments of silence when you were simply too scared to breathe in fear of disturbing a musical peak. They were met with thunderous applause. They were outstanding. Seeing Pascal Gemme’s face and emotion when he was witnessing, for the first time, his tune Neck Breaker being performed by the Bid at Friday night’s club was probably my Festival highlight. It has to be the ultimate compliment for any tune or song-writer to have their material performed by another artiste – especially a band as internationally respected as our very own Fiddler’s Bid. Pascal looked as proud as I felt. All hail da Shelties!