Memorable music in honour of Thomas
As Thomas Fraser’s daughter May opened proceedings at the final night of the eighth annual festival in memory of her father, an obvious question is what the shy Burra fisherman himself would have made of all this.
Fraser may well have been embarrassed by the amount of fame he has achieved long after his death. He would more than likely be amazed by the surroundings in the Hamnavoe hall, with his huge photograph dominating the stage and a mixing deck, which even acoustic players seem to have nowadays, situated at the back. But one thing is pretty certain – he would have loved the music.
May and Mackie Sutherland, accompanied by May’s daughter Rhonda Simpson on vocals, Gemma Donald on fiddle and Hamish Henderson on bass, provided an excellent launchpad for what was to follow, treating us to two of the Jimmy Rodgers and Inkspots songs which influenced her father so much, before finishing off with an instrumental where Mackie’s superb guitar picking was in evidence.
Next on stage was the oldest performer of the night – Yell/Whalsay fiddler Alan Tulloch (who went to the fishing with Fraser), with backing from Ryan Couper on guitar, Margaret Simpson on piano and Loraine Anderson on bass.
Now in his seventies Tulloch remains an excellent player, and he was warming to the task when the compere informed him he just had time for “wan mair short een”. Finishing with his “signature tune”, Tulloch said it was rather a pity to come off when he was “just coming into my own”.
From a seasoned campaigner it was over to one making her first appearance behind a microphone – Thomas Fraser’s great niece Alison Ramsay. She revealed a mellow, soothing voice and more proof that the family’s legacy lives on, while accompanist Couper had another chance to showcase his burgeoning talent.
Eddie Williamson, one of several musicians on the bill who regularly visited Fraser at his home at Setter and was greatly influenced, gave his usual selection of banjo-layered favourites, the pick of which was I’m in the Jailhouse Now. He was followed by Burra exile Martin Pottinger, the second youngest of the musical brothers, making a welcome return to the festival and delighting the audience with his Back Home in My Hamnavoe.
The subsequent group to take a bow were the Orkney-based Lone Star Swing Band, fresh from touring the country with their acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland touring show Long Gone Lonesome, written by band leader Duncan McLean.
When their splendid session was over I caught up with the likeable McLean, still dripping with sweat and totally excited by the whole occasion, and discovered how he became immersed in the Thomas Fraser story.
Originally from Fraserburgh, he had always been a big fan of country music, especially Texas swing, Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers and more. He first became aware of Fraser when a friend in Stromness came back clutching a copy of the first CD Long Gone Lonesome Blues.
“I looked at the track listing and was immediately interested when I saw Brakeman’s Blues,” he said. “From that moment I was committed to a very special music talent. I followed the CD releases as they came out but I never thought of writing anything until the National Theatre contacted me.”
He said it was somewhat nerve-racking to be doing the show for the first time in Fraser’s home village, but he was delighted with the reception.
“I knew that it would be a difficult place to do it. I also knew that if it wasn’t good enough for Burra it should not be performed anywhere.
“[But] the warmth of the response to this is the best I have ever had. Thomas’s story elicits that sort of response. He had a lot of challenges but he overcame them.”
McLean said they tried to convey as much as possible in the one-and-a-half hour production, but the biggest impact of all was when the audience heard Fraser’s own voice at the end on the tear-jerking Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Back down in the hall the wonderul Laeverick, featuring the beautiful harmonies of Jenny Keldie (formerly Napier), Mhari Pottinger and Fraser’s grand-daughter Rhonda Simpson, plus guitarist Gordon Tulloch and Ivor Polson on mandolin/bass, were just beginning. I loved their rendition of Antja Duvecot’s Reasonland, one of the highlights of the whole evening.
Another of Burra’s favourite sons, the eldest Pottinger brother Arthur, was next to be introduced, and his smooth tones were soon in evidence with the Ed Bruce song When You Fall in Love Everything’s a Waltz.
There was a special moment when he recalled his boyhood days, and the song his daddy used to sing to him over the trawler band radio while at the fishing. So, for the first time ever, Arthur did out his own version of I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.
The festival is always bolstered of a couple of big names from across the Atlantic, and this year was no exception with Nashville stars Chris Scruggs (grandson of the legendary Earl), David Tanner and Scott Icenogle and bluegrass supremo Peter Rowan.
Tanner had already spent a week in Shetland, playing a few impromptu gigs around Lerwick with local musicians such as Norman Goudie, Roy Tait and Kenny Johnson, and we had an interesting chat during the break for soup and bannocks.
A former district attorney from Posey County in Indiana, no less, five years ago he sold his law office – books, pencils, plastic flowers and all – in order to pursue a music career. He told me he was making his second visit here, and how he first became attracted to the isles through his friend Linda Anderson, the fiddler from Mid Yell. Now he was well and truly hooked.
“This has been totally great. What I really like about it is to come so far from home and to [find] such a love for traditional country music. Almost the same taste in music as back home in Nashville. It’s great to come over here and find that.
“I was here a year or so back and I bought a couple of [Thomas Fraser] CDs and I loved them.
“Shetland is amazing. To come here and it feels like I am still in Nashville. Folks play until 5am, have a couple of hours sleep, wake up and are ready to get started again. These are my kind of people. It’s been a blast.”
After a few mouthfuls of lukewarm, but still delicious, reestit mutton soup, a familiar figure was introduced. “Big” Robbie Cumming was accompanied by Alan McKay on acoustic guitar, Jackie Robertson on pedal steel, Bobby Sutherland on drums and Peter Sinclair on bass. There was more poignancy when they played Carmen, the favourite song of two sadly-departed Burra music men – the late Cecil Cumming and Cecil Laurenson.
The stars of the evening for many were the trio of Scruggs, Tanner and Icenogle, sharing vocals during a superb slot. They came with big reputations and they went away with their status well enhanced. Scruggs, in particular – the “John Lennon of bluegrass” as he has been tagged – was an absolute delight, switching effortlessly between guitar, fiddle and slide guitar.
Somebody had to follow that and there was only one man who could – the magical voice of Peter Rowan. After a couple of moderate openers he switched into high gear with Land of the Navajo, holding us spellbound with some mind-blowing Native American yodelling at the end.
Rowan was joined by his Nashville buddies for a fitting finale, and then everyone packed on stage for the usual “hoedown” with Hank Williams’ I Saw the Light.
The evening was indeed a memorable one, with MCs Geordie Pottinger and John William Ward ensuring everything ran smoothly. There was also efficient table service, eliminating the whispering for orders at the bar which in previous years so irritated some of the sterner organisers.
Somebody said on the way out they reckoned this was the best Fraser festival so far. I’ll second that.