No snow without punch as folk festival lights up Cullivoe

A peerie flurry of snow never put a Shetland show off, did it? It certainly did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm on night two of the Shetland Folk Festival 2012 as far as I could see.

Now, normally it might be secreted somewhere throughout or stuck on the end of a review, but the audience at the folk festival concert in Cullivoe last night deserve more than that. They, like the five acts on show, were simply first class.

Up first was local lass Lana Elaine, joined by uni pals Calum Morrison on accordion and Stephen Henderson on the drum kit. Lana kicked off – she was perhaps a little nervous but her sweet box playing, fast fingers across the keys, was a joy.

Lana clearly has wonderful imagination, not just as a composer but as a humourist. The titles of the first couple of tunes she enthralled the Yell folk (and guests) with said it all: Buckfast at Tiffany’s and Chunder Struck. The former was penned after a memorable evening out celebrating and the latter, well, after a similar event really. Brilliant stuff.

The trio’s work ranged from the quite tuneful to the surprisingly meaty; all three students of the art are more than ready for the big stage that the Shetland festival provides.

Next. I don’t pretend to be an aficionado of the blues genre, the ear drums have had many tunes from Doc Watson, J D Crowe and various other, mainly bluegrass singers and instrumentalists, pass by them – I know little but I know what I like. Rory Elis, Perry Stenbäck and Steffan Sørensen blew me away.

If stage presence ever made a difference then Australian Ellis had us hooked with that alone. His craic, quips and stories knitted into the set were a real belly laugh. Example: he had the crowd all pinned back with tales of “the one” and love. The song ground forward and midway through he uncovered the true focus of the love in question, a 65 Pontiac. Classic.

My better half described Ellis’s voice as “a proper man’s voice” and “fantastically melodic”. I couldn’t put it better. Is it like Seasick Steve or Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish at all? Maybe not and who cares?

This trio met at the Shetland Folk Festival in 2008 and now collaborate. As they said it’s tough to get together to practice given Ellis is down under and the other two live in Denmark. It works though, this was only the third gig together and they just go together.

Stenbäck plays electric guitar leads as good as Mark Knopfler and Sørensen’s base lines were a real treat, particularly on the lovely swinging The Gift, penned like them all by Ellis. It is a song about the beauty of getting older, you ain’t getting old at all you are “perfectly damaged”. I’m pinching that line.

Another local act filled the stage next. Haltadans looked strangely familiar. A band member prompted compére Davie Henderson: the new band were in fact not Fullsceilidh Spelamannslag but just Halfscelidh. Still, it was like the full fat version, playing good fulsome Shetland tunes and spree music.

The band are Lois Nicol, Maurice Henderson, Ewen Thomson on fiddles, Grant Nicol on guitar and peerie laughs and “man of few words but many tunes” John Clark on electric bass.

As wis locals would expect these guys were tighter than, well a camel’s nostrils in a sand storm. Some wonderful, new to me at least, sets of Shetland tunes and springs – one set from the wonderfully named Delting man Tammy o’ Wham. Nothing to do with George Michael.

I like tune names but can rarely remember many. Maurice was having a little difficulty on stage but Ewen helped him out. Maurice was amazed he could but Ewen quipped back “I hae dem written doon here”. Be prepared.

Haltadans is in fact a limping trowie dance, according to Maurice, he should know – some think he actually is one!

By this time the crowd had been well and truly warmed up by the first three acts. They were about to get frantic.

Mànran turned up the volume. They reminded me a lot of The Battlefield Band who were in Shetland many moons back. The Yell folks loved them, sales of the award winning first CD from the back of the hall told you all you needed to know.

A six-piece from the Scottish west coast, the band’s play list was infectious, very lively and mostly Gaelic. We’ll take it for granted that the lyrics were as singer Norrie MacIver introduced. It doesn’t really matter.

They swung into action with a set of reels and the crowd were hooked. I won’t attempt the tune or song names here but MacIver said “just use a mixture of vowels loudly when signing along, that’ll be fine”.

One song did have an English name, it was an English song after all. The Open Door highlighted the wonderful voice Norrie MacIver has. They proceeded with pipes, Scottish and Irish, wonderful box playing, standing up too and drums and electric bass in fine accompaniment.

A couple of wonderful quotes re Mànran. The first overheard from a local man, “boy, dir taall”, he was right they are big lads. The second came from a local lass the night before to box player Gary Innes: “Who are you boys?” We’re Mànran. “You’re Mànran, I’m man daft.”

The break provided a breather for all. The show was running a little late so an express raffle was necessary and when Davie Henderson rightly pointed out we would need to crash on because the acts, helpers and he had a ferry to catch at half past midnight, words of wisdom from the floor of “build a tunnel” were spat right back. Just in time for the new council.

Last on, who could possibly maintain the fire Mànran had started?

Well, back in 1997 I was looking forward to seeing a new face at the folk festival. A multi-instrumentalist from Cape Breton who looked, from the limited biography, like he played just my favourite kind of music. Turned out he did, finger picking bluegrass guitar, mandolin and banjo as well as the fiddle. Not only that his song writing and performing abilities were, and still are brilliant.

That was then, this is J P Cormier’s fourth visit and this time he brought, also from the Cape, the Elliot Brothers, Mike on electric base and Bill picking guitar. Together they were outstanding and topped a wonderful evening in Cullivoe.

They knew time was tight so didn’t waste time early on, just picked and sang their way through outstanding stuff. Treating us all, well me in particular, to Merle Travis’s song Nine Pound Hammer.

The late great Bill Monroe, the man who created bluegrass music, was J P’s inspiration and teased him about his picking abilities. I’ll stick my neck out and say J P is one of the best. Up there with Monroe and Doc Watson.

I clearly wasn’t the only fan in the room, I overheard a few murmur requests in hope. People were on their feet, clapping, whistling and stamping feet as the trio stunned us with the finger work. Back in 97 many in Shetland would have bought the new album Another Morning, after all he performed most of the tunes songs from it back then at the festival. Hoping he would indulge us with wonderful songs like Molly May, the haunting tale of a lost fishing boat, and the show stopping Kelly’s Mountain.

We did get Molly May but time was up and it looked like we wouldn’t be treated further but good old Davie Henderson took a gamble on the ferry and allowed a quick encore – we got Kelly’s Mountain! I went home very happy indeed and the hairy drive to Lerwick was brightened up by the album Return to the Cape. Snow in May – what’s that about?

J P, as he is known, told us he “was totally deconstructed by Shetland” has been on the road for 30 years. I for one sincerely hope this is not the last time we see him in Shetland.

Davie’s bus rumbled aboard the ferry with a minute to spare. Like the festival itself, just like clockwork.

Night three tonight. Off to the Clickimin, did I mention J P is playing?

Brian Johnston













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