Preposterously talented, pioneering folk trio LAU brought their unique blend of sweeping drama and melancholy to Mareel for a terrific show on Wednesday.
Opening act for the night were Kollifirbolli. Coming from a rich musical heritage, sisters Astryd and Kaela Jamieson (along with their fiddling friend Mary Rutherford) play a selection of Shetland and Irish tunes.
Many of the former were penned by Astryd and Kaela’s parents, Debbie Scott and Ronnie Jamieson, and the high point of a beautifully delivered set is the stately elegance of Ronnie’s Aald Noost.
Fiddle Frenzy’s 10th birthday curator Bethany Reid then introduced LAU. Having won BBC Radio 2’s gong for best folk band three years on the bounce from 2008-2010, and fresh from performing on Jools Holland late last year, they come with the highest of pedigrees.
There was nothing especially “traditional” about the expert threesome’s music when they graced the isles’ folk festival in 2010. Their latest LP, 2012’s Race the Loser, saw electronics added to the mix as LAU teamed up with producer Tucker Martine. He has worked with R.E.M. and Gillian Welch.
Before a packed Mareel auditorium, The Burrian swells, slowly and surely, to a climax topped off by Kris Drever’s wordless vocal coda.
English interloper Martin Green, who is married to Fair Isle’s Inge Thomson, wrings a seemingly impossible array of notes, beats, effects and sounds out of his accordion. Far from Portland, dedicated to the late Lise Sinclair, contains a dazzling array of picks, strums and Martin’s bewildering concoction of box-playing, loops and percussion.
Oban fiddler Aidan O’Rourke’s playing regularly takes the breath away, while Orcadian guitarist Drever brings out his soaring vocals on Throwing Pennies and a brace of songs – Ghosts and Lal Waterson’s Midnight Feast – from their EP collaborations with Adem and Karine Polwart, respectively.
A reworked version of 2010 track Horizontigo drifts from sombre to celebratory and back again. The title, we’re told, means a “fear of a lack of height” – inspired by a visit to the flatlands of Green’s native East Anglia. The piece is immaculately executed, replete with some nifty slide guitar from Drever.
Granted, what LAU do is not everyone’s cup of tea. “I dunna keen whit tae mak o’ yun”, said one punter on the way out afterwards. Some of the more discordant, experimental moments (the band talk of occasionally finding themselves in a “sonic nightmare”) do leave you wondering whether any folk purists feel a temptation to dig out a Father Ted–style “down with this sort of thing” placard.
But for those who relish seeing a group demolishing the genre’s supposed straitjacket, it’s a treat. Not knowing what notes are coming next, or which of the three might suddenly take over lead duties or start carrying the rhythm, is a rare thrill.
The restless dynamic of LAU’s playing is twinned with some amusing chatter, not least in the form of Green’s deadpan humour. His demeanour during the frantic close to one piece, his seat on the verge of giving way as he rocked back and forth, is something to behold.
By the time the encore – a delicious Hinba – judders to a halt, the trio have more than earned the elation of the audience. What these guys do defies easy categorisation. The term “prog folk” would be enough to send most people scuttling to the hills, while terming them a “folk Radiohead” doesn’t really pass muster either. One thing’s for sure: they’ve a sound that’s completely their own, and it’s hard to imagine this festival has witnessed many sets as boldly adventurous as this.
* See this week’s Shetland Times for more coverage of the 10th Fiddle Frenzy, including Daniel Lawson’s review of Fiddlers’ Bid and how Maurice Henderson has been filling music students full of trowie Fetlar tales.