Hot on the heels of this week’s epic festivities, Lerwick tonight plays host to a winter warmer of a gig in the shape of the first Transatlantic Sessions show to be staged outside of a major city.
Speaking to The Shetland Times during a break in rehearsals in Glasgow earlier this week, much lauded dobro player Jerry Douglas – who co-directs the sessions with Shetland’s own Aly Bain – promised a “pretty broad canvas” for tonight’s show.
The tour was due to debut in Glasgow Concert Hall as part of this year’s Celtic Connections last night, only a couple of days after the 15 musicians and singers got together in one of the city’s rehearsal studios. Douglas said he wouldn’t know until less than an hour beforehand what the setlist would be.
He is belatedly making a trip north today after his last planned visit was kyboshed when the US launched an air raid on Libya the first time around back in 1986. Bain and other friends and musicians have told him plenty about the islands’ renowned hospitality and love of acoustic roots music.
“It’s the home of Aly Bain and we have to do something special,” Douglas said. “I’m so looking forward to coming up there. I’ve heard so much … about how nice, how warm the people are, inviting people into their homes. That’s just something that doesn’t exist in the world these days, and it sounds like a beautiful fairytale land.”
Touring commitments mean the band has to rush off early on Saturday morning, giving the tour manager a potential headache. If one or two overindulge in the aforementioned hospitality then getting everyone to the airport on time could be “like herding cats”. Douglas himself would love to make a longer visit, but is in the middle of a “pretty gruelling schedule”. Once this tour is over he’ll be jetting straight across the Atlantic to LA for this year’s Grammys.
Douglas and Bain are responsible for putting together what is billed as the “ultimate back-porch session”. Though the idea is not to stray from the “acoustic string band zone”, the diversity of singers and performers means bits of pop, rock, bluegrass, country, folk and blues will be thrown into a musical cocktail which seems almost to have been genetically programmed to appeal to the islands’ many lovers of traditional roots music.
Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, Scottish vocalist Eddi Reader, singer Ruth Moody (of the Wailin’ Jennys), Capercaillie frontwoman Karen Matheson and rich-voiced Irish troubadour Declan O’Rourke will be lending their respective talents to a show likely to be “probably one third tunes, two thirds singing”.
The process of getting everything together began last year with Douglas putting a collection of songs together and sending them out to those involved, after which they were whittled down. The singers have put forward some of their own material to sit alongside traditional standards by Hank Williams, the Carter Family and old-time hillbillies the Skillet Lickers.
Alongside the aforementioned will be roots doyen Tim O’Brien and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky. The ensemble will be backed by musicians including Russ Barenberg, Danny Thompson, Mike McGoldrick, James Mackintosh and Donald Shaw.
How easy is it, then, to marshal such an exalted collection of roots players and performers to ensure the end product is a coherent concert performance?
“Everybody drops their ego at the door and becomes part of one big band,” Douglas says. “Everybody’s on stage all the time – we have a nice social area back behind the band, so nobody really leaves and comes back and forth, sort of like a radio show used to be. If they feel like doing backing vocals they jump up and start singing.
“It’s not anybody that could pull this off – they’re all great musicians and compromising musicians. They all have huge musical encyclopaedias [so] they’re capable of doing many things.”
It’s no surprise the Ohio-born Douglas was chosen for the task. A key member of Alison Krauss’ Union Station band, by the age of 55 he has somehow managed to grace an exhausting 2,000 recordings by artists including James Taylor, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Phish, Earl Scruggs and Garth Brooks.
He has also given birth to a dozen solo albums, with a new one on its way in April. Songs from it will feature tonight, but in a much changed guise to the original recordings. He sees the Transatlantic Sessions as a “litmus test” to tell whether a song is any good.
Even when singers, such as Malo, come from a very different background ways are found to make it work and a surprising number of common threads tend to be uncovered.
“They’re just such good singers, they adapt so well to every different situation and that’s the whole secret to this show,” Douglas says. “Raul probably has the most different background of everybody else, but even he has in common with these other people that he’s heard a lot of country music – he grew up listening to Johnny Cash, so there’s that common factor and from that grows a lot of other things.”