Members of the Shetland Folk Festival committee have been nervously watching the progress of the giant volcanic ash cloud which has hung over much of northern Europe for the past eight days, amid fears that musicians travelling to Shetland from across the globe would be unable to attend.
After air travel was resumed across much of Britain on Wednesday morning, committee member Mhari Pottinger said that, while the move was not being taken for granted, things were certainly looking up.
“I don’t think anyone’s being complacent about it,” she said, “but we’re feeling more positive now, and taking each day as it comes.
“Certainly, if airspace stays open we would hope that by next Tuesday or Wednesday things should be fine. Every effort will be made to get visiting artists to Aberdeen so they can get the ferry up to participate.”
She also added a reassurance for audiences that, volcano or no volcano, the show would go on. “The key message is that the festival will be going on regardless.”
This year’s event is the 30th anniversary of the folk festival, and there are more concert tickets available than ever before. That growth, Mhari says, has been met by a rise in demand.
“Already this year we’ve sold as many tickets as we did for the whole festival last year, and there’s still a week to go. Usually concerts are sold out before it all starts, but we can offer more tickets to be bought during the event.
“There’s still seven concerts outwith the festival club with availability, and all of the concerts in the festival club featuring local acts still have tickets. There’s also plenty of tickets left for the concert in the Clickimin on Thursday night. That’s a top class line-up, with Ahisma, from India and Germany, the Foghorn Stringband, Simon Thoumire and Ian Carr, Lau and Bryan Gear and Violet Tulloch.
“We’re in a lucky position with the demand for tickets this year. But I just want to stress that there are still tickets for some concerts available for anyone who hasn’t got them.”
Each year, as the pre-festival buzz hots up, certain acts emerge as the “ones to watch”. One group that has generated considerable interest among concert goers this year is the Swedish band Baskery, three sisters from Stockholm who bring together their familial talent into a sound they call “killbilly”.
It’s high-energy music, combining traditional country instruments – primarily guitar, bass and banjo – close-harmony singing and a youthful, punk attitude, which has earned them fans all over the world. In the past two years they have released their debut album, Fall Among Thieves, toured with folk superstar Seth Lakeman and now look set to take the Shetland Folk Festival by storm.
“One of the highlights for me will be seeing Baskery,” Mhari said. “I’m a big fan of their music.
“It’s also fantastic that we’ve managed to book The Wiyos. They’re flying over from the States especially for the festival.”
The Wiyos are a Brooklyn-based band, with a unique take on traditional American music. Their fourth album, Broken Land Bell, has been described as successfully blending “1920s/30s country blues and western swing with pop song writing sensibilities and post-modern experimental sound sculptures”, and last year the quartet were asked to open for Bob Dylan on his tour across America.
On Saturday night of the festival The Wiyos will be playing in the Clickimin Centre along with another hugely popular act, whom Mhari is delighted to welcome home.
“It’s almost 20 years since Fiddlers’ Bid were given a platform to play alongside world-class acts, in 1991; so I’m really excited about them coming back again now as a visiting act.”
Fresh from a tour to promote their most recent album, All Dressed in Yellow, the band will take to the stage in what looks to be a fantastic concert, also featuring Väsen, Hom Bru and the New Rope String Band. Indeed, this event has already proved to be hugely popular with the ticket-purchasing public.
“I don’t think the festival has ever had a Saturday night Clickimin concert that has sold out as quickly as this one,” Mhari said. “It was all advance members who bought tickets and even a lot of them couldn’t get tickets.”
Another concert that has attracted a great deal of interest is the “Inter-Tunety” gig in the Clickimin Centre on Friday night, featuring Orkney’s The Chair and local band Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag. Both acts are renowned as purveyors of foot-stomping, rabble-rousing tunes, and it promises to be a hugely enjoyable evening.
“There’s going to be quite a lot surprises in that gig I think,” Mhari said. “That’s going to be a fantastic night of entertainment.”
While other musical events sometimes struggle with poor attendance in Shetland, after 30 years the festival is still attracting large audiences from all over the isles, and there is no sign of that support cooling down. So what is the secret of its success?
“I think there’s a range of things that’s special about the folk festival,”Mhari said. “For me, I didn’t really have any choice but to get hooked, as Mum and Dad took me since I was a peerie bairn.
“I was about 14 when I first sold raffle tickets at a concert and I’ve volunteered every year since then. It’s just become an integral part of my life; it is the event of my year. And it’s something that Shetland people look forward to every year.
“It’s such an amazing buzz to interact with visiting and local musicians and to be involved with such a great group of volunteers. The festival is a triumph of voluntary efforts.”
For audiences also, there is a huge amount on offer. And it’s not just the quality of the visiting artists that is important.
“A lot of tourists are coming to the festival,” she said, “and yes they’re interested in seeing the visiting acts but they also want to see the local acts and experience that side of it.
“There’s such a variety of music; it’s not just the hard core folk music, like some festivals elsewhere. We‘re focusing on the range of musicians. The community in Shetland trusts the committee to book good music and a good range of music, and that’s the key to our success really.”
Shetland Folk Festival kicks off next Thursday with an opening concert at the festival club in Islesburgh Community Centre at 1pm. Tickets are still available for some concerts and can be bought from the festival office at 5 Burns Lane, Lerwick.