It’s difficult to know where to start when describing such a fantastic night of music.
Brought together by musical directors Margaret Scollay and Douglas Montgomery the Isles’ Gathering at Mareel last night saw 20-odd of Shetland and Orkney’s most talented musicians collaborating.
What started with something “really quite special” concluded with every musician playing their part in a fantastic set of tunes starting with Boys O’ Da Lounge and ending with Reconciliation – with “a bit of mayhem” in between.
At that point the rolled-out seating in Mareel was bouncing as the audience, loving every minute, clapped stamped and whooped. It was the perfect way to reach a crescendo and leave the crowd crying out for more (which was duly delivered) before a standing ovation left the performers in no doubt that this first Isles’ Gathering was a runaway success.
It was the Shetland contingent that got things started, in more muted fashion, with Freda Leask leading Angel Whispers. The beautiful song was given an extra element with the inclusion of a school choir, featuring youngsters from Unst, Brae, Whiteness , Bell’s Brae and Sound primary schools. That was the something special Scollay spoke of, although she admitted the group lost the “cute factor” afterwards.
Maybe, but the gig lost none of its energy as the first reel of the night was aired. It was no surprise that fiddles featured heavily on the bill, but the programme also showed the breadth of musical talent in the isles. Among that talent pool is Lewie Peterson, who put down the banjo and mandolin and stepped up to perform a self-penned song describing the a quandary that many young Shetlanders must experience: tangling with the draw of the bright lights against the allure of home.
“I pitched it to The Revellers,” says Peterson, “but it maybe wasn’t appropriate”. Too slow for them, but it is a belter of a song and despite Peterson admitting to awkwardness in front of the mic, it was beautifully delivered. Based on this performance he should take to singing more often. In fact, he does later in the show.
The opening section was completed with some guitar picking, a touch of country from Sheila Henderson, Freda Leask and Jenny Keldie (now resident in Orkney, and who flitted between the two groups) combining to perform A Fool Such as I – another hit with the crowd – and a couple of reels during which the Orcadians invaded the stage.
They were given a warm welcome and as the baton was passed over, they launched straight into a roaring set of tunes.
Among their number was the supremely talented Kris Drever. His rendition of Honey in the Rock lifted the standard again, before a set of jigs showed the visitors could make violins sing (almost) as much as their more northerly counterparts.
Drever, returned to sing Farewell to Stromness – collected by the Orkney Song Project, even though it includes the line “The mountains and valleys of Orkney farewell,” suggesting it does not originate from there, joked Drever – before the polkas ended the session.
Then, after the break, there was the raffle. Anyone there will understand the significance of that.
If the first half was good the post-interval set, with all the musicians occupying the stage, was even better. The highlights kept coming. Peterson and his fellow mandolin and banjo man from Orkney, Brian Cromarty, plucked their way through a tune. David Halcrow joined the accordionists to play Norwegian tunes (his dad Jim was unable to be there because of knee replacement) and then that man Drever again announced: “A bunch of us are going to play a good few tunes, which as probably no surprise to you at this stage.”
It wasn’t but deserves mention for the inclusion of Honk Toot “because that is how it goes.” There was a bit more too it than that but it was more riveting music.
The moments of quality are too many to mention, but the the “wild polkas” including Titting the Scale (that one got a titter) stood out. And the introduction of Lerwick Brass Band members for the slow air Love of the Isles was a well-considered addition; the brass adding a richer, warmer element to the sound.
There was time for a couple more songs before the gathering launched into that rousing finale. It was a fitting end to a thoroughly enjoyable concert.
The Isles’ Gathering will get another airing at the Orkney Folk Festival later this month. Given the reception it received last night, it ought to be repeated again.