Acoustic power trio warm up winter night at Mareel
The audience who had braved icy winds and torrential rain on Sunday to make the trip to Mareel were treated to a diverse and rousing set on what promoter Davie Gardner dubbed a “very special night”.
Shetland’s most famous son, Aly Bain, was back playing to a home crowd again, two short months after Fiddle Frenzy. This time he was accompanied by multi-instrumentalists Bruce Molsky, who had played at the Mareel opening concert, and Swede Ale Möller, making his debut in Shetland.
The “fiddle power-trio” had no less a turbulent trip to Shetland, landing “sideways” at Sumburgh on Saturday. Möller joked during the gig that while on tour, Aly Bain always requested that a powerful fan be installed on stage, presumably to remind him of home.
The easy, jocular relationship between the three acclaimed musicians was a staple of Sunday night’s performance and the energy and enthusiasm of the middle-aged trio was a perfect counterpoint to the opening act of 13 bairns from the South Mainland Fiddle Group.
The audience was no less enthusiastic about the youngsters than the headliners and they drew high praise from Bain himself, who was in awe of their confidence and ability.
Meeting the bairns before the gig, he had asked one little girl if she was nervous. “No,” came the prompt reply. “Are you?” Bain admitted he was, and had been nervous before gigs for the past 40 years. “That’s a long time to be nervous,” she said.
He then thanked the South Mainland Fiddlers for their “fantastic fiddle music” and Möller said that he hoped to play with them in the future.
Only 243 tickets were sold for the concert, but it is perhaps a sign of the impact that Mareel has made since opening that such a high-status act can be taken for granted as just part of the rich diet of musical fare that Shetland has become used to.
“It’s a beautiful sounding room with a beautiful sound system,” Bain said. He also praised the abilities of sound man Jonathan Ritch, who the trio were sorely tempted to “head hunt” for their tour.
The bairns, accompanied by Eunice Henderson on keyboards, opened the proceedings with the Shetland tunes Colgrave Sound, Arisdale Burn and Lume Shoen and followed this with Machair at Dawn.
Next a solo spot by junior young fiddler of the year 2013 Jody Smith from Bigton saw her playing Dreamer’s Waltz and Bob McQuillan’s Squeezebox.
Three finalists of the Young Fiddler of the Year competition then took the stage with Hom Rod, Isle Rant and the Cape Breton Visit to Shetland, which brought a rousing response from the crowd.
Henderson, who revealed that the presence of Violet Tulloch in the audience “was making her very nervous”, had tried to choose a musical programme that would reflect the origins of the main acts, so the trio played Ashokan Farewell from the USA, Lyndomer from Norway and finally intermediate young fiddler of the year Alana Smith from Weisdale played the tunes that won her the title: Maggie Anne’s Tune and the Sandyburn Reel.
All the youngsters once more took the stage to finish off with a couple more Shetland tunes by Jeanna Johnston and a number from the musical Mama Mia.
Aly Bain’s career needs no explaining but those of Molsky and Möller are no less remarkable if less well known in Shetland.
Molsky gave up a career as an engineer at the age of 40 to learn fiddle and become a fulltime musician. He has become one of the most influential old-time fiddlers around. He is also a remarkable guitarist, banjo player and singer with a reverence for the past and a healthy curiosity about music outside old-time.
Möller, who Bain first met 30 years ago, found his roots in Swedish folk music by way of first falling in love with the sounds of Greece. En route he became a master of the bouzouki and a multi-instrumentalist with a lot of different flutes in his belt. He has been a front member of bands like Filarfolket, Enteli and Nordan and he still tours the world with the trio Frifot.
The trio kicked off with a couple of old Shetland tunes that had been collected from an “old woman from up north” by Pat Shuldham Shaw – the Lament for the Sailor Who Fell from the Masthead and Up the Stroods the Sailors Went.
For the next song Molsky switched his banjo for a fiddle and Möller played the haunting, melancholy and dramatic intro to a Swedish tune he called Up and Doon the Harbour, which spilled into The Scalloway Lasses. For the reviewer it was the first moment of real magic in the set but there were plenty more.
Molsky belted out the American folk song Handsome Molly, also known as Roving Hanna, and his powerful and tuneful rendition drew a great response.
Bain gave a little commentary on the trowes of Fetlar before firing into a trowie tune.
This was followed by a bizarre and delightful moment when Möller played a tune on the cow horn – the oldest instrument continuously played in Sweden. He started with a few simple notes of the sort that might be used to communicate across a valley before launching into an amazingly coherent and tuneful melody.
After that Molsky hit top form and continued the cowboy theme with The Hills of Mexico, a song of dark power about a cattle drive south of the border that goes disastrously wrong. The Scandinavian hymn Spread Thy Wings continued the range of diverse material covered by the trio who then played Big Mountain, a tune Molsky heard years ago at Ithaca Festival when playing with Boys of the Lough.
According to Molsky, all Bain and Möller discuss and argue about on tour are dialect words, place names and “dees, dus and dats”; of course he does not understand a word. Then he sang a song about the deadly bol weevil that he and Bain learned from Thomas Jefferson Gerald in America.
The Mareel gig was being broadcast to a global audience thanks to Promote Shetland, which was filming the event, and such is the immediacy of the connected world, that Molsky gave a shout to Gillian Gonzalez of Bogota, Columbia, who had been watching the whole thing on the internet.
The trio played three more American tunes including Piney Woods and The Lost Indian before hitting the Shetland tunes The Smuggler’s Geen Back to Holland and The Maut Man.
Then followed The Summer Waltz, a Finnish tune and a song by Molsky called Down the Road which saw Möller crouching and stamping his feet in the mode of Neil Young or “Chuck Berry” as Molsky had it.
There was yet more, with tunes that were influenced by Swedish bagpipe music dating from the middle-ages and a fiddle tune in “troll tuning”, supposedly the strongest and most awkward tuning to perform.
The trio could hardly fail to return for an encore, such was the round of applause that greeted their final set, and they ended with Charming Betsy and the Swedish tune Ek Lunda.