Politically incorrect polkas prove a treat for Legion crowd

“You’re in for a treat.” That was the prediction from the bar staff at the Legion in Lerwick who’d heard the sound check ahead of last night’s concert.

There was an Irish theme running through the evening but it was down to locals, Birls Aloud, to kick things off with the splendidly-titled Orcadian tune I Have Never had Pumpkin Soup Before, which soon warmed the audience up.

The highlight of their act was the introduction of Sophie Moar. She was named traditional fiddler of the year last week and gave her winning tunes another run out. Introducing Sophie, band leader Eunice Henderson said the rest of Birls Aloud was made up of “one very proud mam, two very proud aunties and one very proud instructor.”

It’s easy to see why and the stunning performance prompted the first, well deserved, ovation of the night.

Another award winner was next on stage, BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year Paddy Callaghan, flanked by flautist Adam Brown and the Danny Boyle, who plays guitar, sings and performs and incredible bodhran solo that has crowd members craning their necks to see just how he is making the mesmerising sounds. He is a rare talent.

Callaghan jokes that his band is the hardest working at the festival – Friday’s slot was the seventh gig in one-and-a-half days. With that much playing no wonder they are so good.

It’s an crackling performance spiced with reels, slides and “non PC” polkas (“it’s not very politically correct to do somebody else’s tradition,” he explains, “but that’s what we try to do”). More controversy comes in the form of the hymn, Be Thou my Vision, running into more reels. He says it was something “religiousy” recorded for Songs of Praise and due to be screened in the summer. “Apparently our music is angelic,” he adds. It’s the first time it has been performed to a live audience and controversial or not it provides a beautifully evocative moment to an otherwise lively set.

The filling in the Irish sandwich comes after the interval with songs from Orcadian Brian Cromarty and his “all Shetland” counterpart Jenny Keldie. And what songs they are. I was surprised at how captivated I was as the harmonies filled the room when the pair opened with Bells of Harlem. They also tackled Bob Dylan’s Ring Them Bells but the show-stopper, and a highlight of the night, is The Dimming of the Day. It was simply beautiful.

Next up the stage was filled by the impressive Niamh Ni Charra band with a roaring set of tunes, songs and story telling. Ni Charra says she’s glad to be back for the 33rd folk festival, adding: “Have you any idea how difficult it is for an Irish person to say that.”

The music is as accomplished as you would expect from a woman who has toured the world but there is an unexpected depth and richness to the sound. Never more so than when Ni Charra sings with stirring emotion and maturity. She even manages to get the Legion crowd singing along to a chorus in Irish before ending with a fabulous set titled San Antonio.

This paved the way for the final act of the night, The Rambling Boys of Pleasure. They are five talented and fun-loving Irishmen. The banter is stepped up a notch, notably from chief joker Gino Lupari, although the rest of the band can hold their own. But this is not a comedy act and The Boys also deliver atmospheric music.

The Ballad of Will Joblin, telling the tragic story of a 19th century miners’ leader and is delivered with passion by vocalist Alan Burke and later in the set his If Mama Ain’t Happy is a fine bluesy number.

But there’s more. The juxtaposition between humour and tender tunes is exemplified when button accordionist David Munnelly introduces What Next? “I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s a nice tune,” he says.

It is, and so is For Rose. It was  written as a present for a friend’s baby daughter but it’s a gift to music lovers everywhere.

If the theme of the night was Irish there was plenty of variety to keep the packed room entertained with brilliant music and plenty of laughs.

A treat indeed.


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