Opening night Cunningsburgh show lives up to expectations

The Rambling Boys of Pleasure performing at Cunningsburgh Hall on Thursday.
Click to enlarge

The line-up last night at Cunningsburgh on the opening night of the 33rd Shetland Folk Festival promised much.

And it promptly delivered on a committee promise to festival stalwart, the late Michael Coutts, that “we’ll make sure that this festival is one of the best yet”.

On this evidence it will be. Isn’t it always?

Up first were two of Shetland’s finest guitar players, Brian Nicholson with his son Arthur. The set of songs, mostly sung in dialect, went down a storm. A tough ask to warm a crowd and let me be honest, I am not a huge fan of one man and a guitar singing folk songs, ballads and the like but Brian has a wye wi him.

He started with a country classic turned Yell classic by the late Bobby Tulloch, Du Picked a Fine Time ta Fa Bye Dastreen, as Brian said it doesn’t really translate into English but I’ll leave you to try but it is faa bye dastreen and not fall by the stream. Like a lot of Bobby’s work it is a very humorous look at a not unimaginable story, I wonder if the modern day versions of the sewing/SWRI gathering, the candle, make-up or unnecessary plastic object party would have that ending?

Arthur is a chip off the old block, a marvellous musician. His guitar and mandolin accompaniment and playing was polished and his harmonising worked well.

Other good songs held the crowd in laughter, silence and awe as they listened intently. There was more of Bobby’s work in Jeemie Was a Bachelor along with the traditional song about the Delting fishing disaster in 1900, Da Sang O Da Delting Lass popularised by Hom Bru and a Bernard Smith number Back my Way Again (look on YouTube). The last song, an own composition was really first class, The Blue Whiting, pronounced blue whiteen in that lovely Yell lilt, was a corker.

Signing isn’t really recognised as a strong suite for Shetland music in general but Brian is doing a grand job in getting old and new out there. I and the crowd really enjoyed the set.

Up next were a mix of old and new at the Shetland festival, The Rambling Boys of something, not sure if it is leisure, pleasure or full measures?

They are the gregarious Gino Lupari, “The king of the bodhrán”, Alan Burke on guitar and vocals, David Munnelly on the button box, Bernard O’Neill on double bass and Sean Rega on fiddle.

Humour from Brian Nicholson, now craic from a superb mix of Irish musicians. Gino, allegedly, has a couple of special offers for the festival. Buy his CD, the band’s new EP (I did, first of the festival) and if you don’t like it you can return it – to Gino when he is next in Shetland, and he will swap it for a CD he doesn’t like. Fair enough. The second offer is a Gino fitness video; the ladies of the Cunningsburgh Hall play a huge part in that with lasagne and sticky toffee pudding.

The patter is a welcome aside, the tunes and songs are the staple.

I wonder in awe sometimes at singers. It happened to me with Ike Sheldon of the Wilders and I still, after years of Four Men and a Dog, get the same feeling when those tones come from the jovial frame of Gino Lupari. He exalted us all with Tim O’Brien’s song <i>Pretty, Fair Maid in the Garden</i>, a late request from one of the hall hosts.

Perfect polkas, introduced by David Munnelly from County Mayo who has “English as a tird language” in Dan Murphy’s and one that isn’t Dan Murphy’s.

The Rambling Boys of Pleasure have a mix of the Irish traditional sound, that tight jig, polka and reel that has lift and feeling with new songs. They finished the set with that mix, a song penned by Alan Burke If Mama Ain’t Happy, Nobody’s Happy.

The Sheila Henderson Band filled slot number three. Sheila is joined by Brian Nicholson, bass player Ivor ‘Fred’ Polson and Archer Kemp on drums. If you have to pigeon-hole then I guess country-rock does it.

Sheila Henderson.
Click to enlarge

Sheila has a great voice but if I have one teeny complaint it is that I couldn’t hear it as well as my lugs demand above the instruments. I did notice her asking for a little more from the marvellous sound boys at the back early doors.

Anyhoo, Sheila and her contemporary music back-up blasted our great numbers in fine style with feeling and clear talent. A couple of her own songs: Too Much Time (or not enough to learn it as Fred quipped) and Living a Lie were as good if not better than the covers. They included Thea Gilmour’s You’re The Radio and Kasy Chambers’ Your Day Will Come and were polished and powerful. All-in-all a superb showcase of Shetland’s diversity again.

That paved the way for Cedric Watson. From the heart of Cajun country in Louisiana he lashed out Creo, Zydeco and Cajun “y’all” with ease and feeling. Accompanied by Desiree Champagne, now that’s a name, on washboard and triangle, two greatly underestimated percussion instruments in my view. Both instruments have evolved from the use of everyday items, when money necessitated ingenuity. Desiree also backed-up on vocals and had a wonderful husky voice, I would have loved to have heard sing a number on her own.

I unashamedly like Cajun music, D. L. Menard did that to me. Watson is, well, cool as the night and he can play button box and fiddle like any old master. All his music is titled in French but “I ain’t going there y’all”, I don’t have the qualifications.

They raced through oldies from home, Cedric’s diverse ancestry of African, French, Native American and Spanish shines through but the Louisiana French is the dominant force. “R&B from the 1800s” in the shape of Father January was my favourite.

Joined on stage by Englishman Chris Hall, billed by Watson as his “uncle from this side of the world”, he is a classy Cajun and Zydeco accordionist and set the ball rolling with Baby Please Don’t Go, the Big Joe Williams song, most will have heard Van Morrison’s version.

Cedric Watson.
Cedric Watson.

Last on the bill were a band first formed in Tiree, Skerryvore.

First appearances are deceptive, and these lads look like a well-groomed seven-a-side rugby team without the scrawny scrum-half. I knew from a little research that the noise would be big, a là The Battlefield Band, and I did wonder if the sedate setting and demographic mix of the Cunjul crowd would be up for it. Boy, they certainly were, the folk festival does that to the tame Shetlander.

The band are brothers Daniel Gillespie on accordion, Martin Gillespie on the bagpipes and flute, Fraser West on drums and backing vocals, Alec Dalglish on lead vocals and guitars, Craig Espie on fiddle and Colin Cunningham on electric five-string bass.

A marvellous mix of own material and a couple of classic covers thrown in. Runrig’s Rocket to the Moon was the turning point, the point when us shy Shelties turned into moving objects. Show dances at the Cunningsburgh Hall will never be the same again.

The pumping bass and power of the pipes inside, some hate that, I bathe in it. These guys will make you dance or at the very least, wake-up, pay attention, stamp your feet and clap your hands. They are a showy, show band but don’t let that hide the raw musical talent in the mix, individually and collectively.

I was thoroughly impressed by day one, day two of the 33rd festival has commenced and I’m off for another fill tonight. There are still a very few tickets available from Islesburgh for both Clickimin Centre concerts, tonight and tomorrow night. Cedric Watson in on stage there tonight and if you want to dance to those Tiree boys, get along to Clickimin tomorrow night and be prepared.

Brian Johnston


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