Thursday night’s opener at Lerwick’s Legion contained highlights aplenty during a five-act, four-hour concert where the standard of musicianship seldom fell below outstanding.
I’m afraid I can’t tell you a whole lot about the performances visually – arriving a mere 20 minutes before the first act began had consigned me to a stage-side corner of a packed Legion. Not that I missed any pyrotechnics, though someone did say one group’s front man sported a dodgy trousers-shoes combo.
Even in the early evening daylight the venue can make for a pretty dreich setting, but once the music got going that was easy to forget.
A dependably classy set from Yell’s own Freda Leask kicked off proceedings. Backed by her five-piece Shoormal Band and its outstanding rhythm section, she glided stylishly through half a dozen songs in a set including a couple of dialect poems from Vagaland and Emily Milne, which she had put to music.
Next up were The Long Notes, whose affable singer-guitarist Alex Percy said it “already feels like we’ve been here a week”. Formed in 2007 out of Camden’s session scene, the group includes London-Irish banjo man Brian Kelly, who used to be one of Shane McGowan’s Popes and lived to tell the tale.
Percy (the “posh boy” of the band, nicknamed “Darcy”) took the mic to sing the sombrely affecting Solace and Joy. The Notes specialise in mid-tempo traditional English, Scottish and Irish tunes. One set included a piece about underpants (named Calvin’s Decline), while they rounded off with a set of tunes including the marvellously-titled Please Push the Pig’s Trotter a Little Further Into the Fire.
Post-interval came recently-formed local trio Reesel. The concert as a whole was notably light on fiddles by this festival’s standards – three in all, two of which belonged to Liza Fullerton and Danny Garrick. The pair played a trusty fusion of instrumental reels, jigs and waltzes accompanied by Alison Kay Ramsay’s excellent guitar work.
Then the capacity crowd was transported into the world of Appalachian bluegrass – as interpreted by a quartet of Brits. The musical vehicle for the outrageous talents of Leon Hunt, who is reputed to be the UK’s finest five-string banjo player, theirs is a faithful rendering of the tradition and none the lesser for it.
Mirth-making mandolinist Joe Hymas is the rootsy group’s joker in the pack. His vocals on the Jesse Fuller-penned 99 Years and One Dark Day vaguely recalled Tom Waits and that chap Pete Stack. Hymas also shares Smirk’s occasional penchant for adopting a phoney Deep South accent.
The line-up was completed by upright bassist/singer Ben Somers and splendid guitarist Jason Titley. The audience looked on admiringly at solos from all four, with the Earl Scruggs standard Doin’ Time (on the familiar theme of Deep South chain-gang prisoners) one of several highs.
Last year’s Leon Hunt n-Tet disc Farewell Blues was fashioned in tribute to the late, great Scruggs. When another bluegrass legend, Doc Watson, passed away in early 2012, a version of Deep River Blues was swiftly added to the track list days before recording.
Grins abounded on stage and off as Leon et al picked, plucked and strummed their way through an intoxicating 40-minute set.
Post-raffle, it was time for Rob Heron and his curiously-titled Teapad Orchestra. They came highly recommended having opened for Pokey La Farge & The South City Three – one of 2011’s star turns – recently.
The Tyneside-based outfit’s members are drawn from throughout the UK. Ally Stuart’s crisp drumming underpinned an assortment influenced by early-day American swing, jazz, blues and country styles.
Still recovering from seasickness on Wednesday night’s ferry trip, Rob and his orchestra resorted to a nip of whisky before launching into Lal Waterson’s seafaring song Some Old Salty.
The band’s own material tackled a range of topics: Great Fire of Byker is about a Newcastle scrap yard which burnt down in 2011. Another catchy number, albeit with the odd naff lyric, took out its frustrations on rogue landlords.
Lead singer Heron was in fine voice throughout, even having a bit of a yodel on Bob Miller’s Great Depression-era Bank Failures. 80 years on, some things never change.
The Teapads called time on a thoroughly enjoyable night with a track investigating the pros and cons of saving hot water by sharing a bath with your loved one.