Arriving at Hillswick on Friday evening the popularity of the forthcoming concert was obvious.
At just after 7pm, with the doors still closed, at least 50 people were queued outside and cars parked all along the main road.
The hall, although on the small side, has been given a facelift with impressive wood lining all around. The bar was conveniently situated and table service was a nice bonus.
One problem with most of the folk festival venues, however, is the table layout. The Hillswick chairs are not too uncomfortable but sitting side-on to the stage is no good for the neck. I’m not sure what the solution is but one suggestion could be for everyone to swap seats with the person opposite them at a convenient break.
But let’s cut to the music. First on was Teevliks, a local band comprised of Shetland’s burgeoning talent.
Diminutive fiddler Martha Thomson was the frontwoman, along with Hayden Hook on double bass, Max Tyler on piano, Patrick Mainland on guitar and well-known saxophonist Norman Wilmore this time behind the drumkit.
They started with three tunes written by Michael McGoldrick and then played one written by Martha. “We haven’t got a name yet but we’re looking for suggestions,” she explained.
These youngsters had partly cut their teeth in the acclaimed Harris Playfair Big Band and they played a tune which they learned during that time. Lochnagar Badger was excellent, proving they are the future of Shetland music.
Teevliks were described as “a mix of folk and funk” but to this ear, and that of many others present, happily on this occasion they leant far more to the former.
They finished with a gypsy tune called Basso which was another highlight. This is not the last we’ll hear of them, said the compère, and she was right.
I had wondered who the guy in the flat cap was standing next to the CD sellers at the front, showing great appreciation of the first band. A few minutes later his identity was revealed. He was non other than Old Man Luedecke, all the way from Canada with his trusty banjo.
Actually he’s not old at all, only in comparison to what he had just followed. Some traditional folk songs, evoking memories of the great Pete Seeger, were interspersed with warm banter and silly stories.
I Quit That Job and I’ll Be Missing You were stand-outs, as was that containing the words “Ain’t a song I can’t write my way out of …”
The “beat machine” could have been turned down a notch or two but, that apart, Old Man Luekecke was a treat. The audience easily sang along with Monstanto Jones and laughed when he told them he hailed from Chester, Nova Scotia. “It’s a drinking town with a yachting problem,” he revealed.
“I’m the sort of person that would rather want something than have it,” he said (many of us can identify with that), before locating his guitar from the back of the stage and ending in style.
The second local offering, Kansa, are mostly made up from the Wishart and Grains families: Stewart Grains was young fiddler of the year back in 1994, we were informed by bass player Adam Priest.
Their mix of bluegrass and traditional fiddle tunes was well received. Their version of Bill Munroe’s Can’t You Hear Me Callin was good, but for me the highlight was an interesting version of Erasure’s 1980s hit A Little Respect.
There’s nothing wrong with a good fiddler but in recent times the festival has overdone it with that instrument – three or four years ago almost every band had at least one. So it was heartening to see that the next group, Rob Heron and the Teapad Orchestra, had a multitude of instruments but no catgut in sight.
Heron is a fine singer and he was ably backed by a bunch of musicians, mostly Newcastle-based, who were clearly enjoying themselves – little Orkney accordion player Colin Nicholson being a case in point.
Cajun, swing, jazz, blues, ragtime, country … they had a bit of all those and more, and included in a bunch of memorable songs were Hey Mr Landlord (“If you haven’t had a rogue landlord I work on the presumption that you must be one!” Heron told the audience) and Money Isn’t Everything.
Continuing the financial theme the 1931 song Bank Failures was absolutely superb and the last, Ain’t No Easy Way, showed the tightness of the band with maximum of output from all instruments – and not a fiddle in sight!
There’s nothing like a good old contradiction in a review, so it was a delight to behold the second Canadian act of the night – April Verch (who impressed on her last visit to Hillswick in 2004) and her band.
Verch is truly an amazing creature, an extremely talented fiddler and a stepdancer par excellence. She’s maybe not the greatest singer in this year’s festival line-up but she more than makes up for that in other respects. Like an out-of-control puppet she possesses an energy that borders on the unbelievable.
The compère described Verch as “a Shetland man’s dream”. Well if any Shetland man could keep up with her I’d say bring him forward now!
She described her last visit nine years ago and was not the first during the evening to mention the refurbished hall with its much higher stage. It was great to have the best of both worlds. The musicians were getting a show as well and while the Hillswick crowd were very good their past experiences in some places had not always been pleasant.
Sorry from her new CD Bright Light Gold was just one highlight and no doubt copies of the album will have sold out long before the weekend is over.
Verch’s band contained two musicians of the highest calibre, bass and banjo player Cody Walters and guitarist Hayes Griffin, and it was interesting to note the attention paid to their skills by the other visitors – Old Man Luekecke and all members of Rob Heron and the Teapad Orchestra were obviously impressed.
Hillswick was an excellent night with no-one disappointing.