Last Thursday night saw a bit of a departure for Shetland Folk Festival: some extra cash from Creative Scotland enabled the committee to bring hotly-tipped Scottish indie/folk outfit Admiral Fallow north to grace the Clickimin stage.
Their electric guitars, bittersweet pop choruses and notable lack of any fiddles (except when Aidan O’Rourke joined from the sidelines for one song) meant this was not one for folk purists. That, and the weekday scheduling, perhaps explained the empty seats at the back of the cavernous leisure centre, but it was great to see the festival is willing to expand its reach nevertheless.
It is a pity for those who missed out, though, because Admiral Fallow more than justified the plentiful hype heaped upon their shoulders of late. Taking to the stage at 10.30pm, a tad on the late side for a school night, they kicked off at a stately, sedate pace with Sarah Hayes’ keys and vocals kicking off the opener from their gleaming new record, Tree Bursts in Snow.
Front man Louis Abbott joined in after the opening few bars, pronounced Scottish accent very much to the fore as he intoned “my body is broken and bruised”. Here, and elsewhere in the set, there were hints of the baroque chamber pop with which Belle and Sebastian made their name.
Their formula essentially buttresses the standard indie-rock lineup with clarinet (Kevin Brolly), flute and accordion (Hayes). The latter’s Northumbrian tones dovetailed neatly with Abbott’s to provide a marked, yet harmonious contrast.
On the brink of unleashing their second album, Admiral Fallow are probably still growing into their sound, but this was a highly assured, confident performance showcasing genuine textural depth and intricate interplay so often absent in mainstream rock groups.
After dispatching Subbuteo (the only song out there to name-check plastic table football?), their two singles lifted the tempo and prompted a smattering of folk to start jigging. Beetle in the Box is a jaunty, jangling little gem of a pop song, and was followed by the rollicking, radio-bothering rock of The Paper Trench.
The dance area then emptied as swiftly as it had filled, Abbott sending a few boisterous young bucks back to their seats as the pace receded for the graceful Old Fools. That set the tone for something of a stop-start rhythm to the set, as the band oscillated between majestic, wistful moments, audience singalongs and pulsating rockers.
The plaintive refrain of Isn’t This World Enough?? had the crowd murmuring along to its chorus, before O’Rourke – one of the three baldies playing with flute-oriented trad support act KAN earlier in the evening – joined in for the near-orchestral elegance of Dead Against Smoking, distinctly un-rock’n’roll title notwithstanding.
More sparkling, fizzing pop songs followed in the shape of the effervescent Guest of the Government and the thunderous clatter of another newie, Brother, whose drumbeat propelled the band along for a fairly raucous ride.
There is a healthy tension between Admiral Fallow’s folk leanings and their knowing knack for hook-laden pop songs. They are often likened to Mumford & Sons, but the comparison only rings partially true on Squealing Pigs, their best-known song which was deployed to ensure the night finished on a buoyant note.
Abbott, who had been eager to return having sampled a first taste of the festival 12 months ago, relished the whole atmosphere. He seemed to enjoy engaging those down the front in a bit of banter, only at one stage seeming a tad weirded out, joking “what a creepy guy” in reference to one overenthusiastic reveller.
The band hung around long enough for a sweaty late-night set in the festival club at Islesburgh in the early hours of Saturday, before dashing off to play London’s Camden Crawl that evening. Rest assured we’ll be hearing plenty more from these guys in the years to come.
Earlier in the evening, KAN had provided a showcase for the virtuoso flute and whistle playing of Flook’s Brian Finnegan, alongside O’Rourke’s outstanding and adventurous fiddle playing. More than just Irish and Scottish influences abounded: there were hints of jazz and other global influences from a line-up completed by drummer James Goodwin and guitarist Ian Stephenson.