The Lerwick British Legion’s first folk festival gig of 2014 kicked off in fairly muted style – not the fault, it has to be said, of the act with the tough, first slot, Adam Sutherland & Friends. Perhaps the audience had not yet supped enough legal drugs to get in the mood.
Sutherland, a veteran of many headline acts on the folk circuit, and his compadres soon proved to the Legion audience their musical excellence and clever arrangements with a fresh take on the traditional folk genre.
A somewhat spacey, jazzy sound infused most of their work and was reflected in titles like Pacific Trash Vortex. The jaunty but nonetheless melancholic Iris was written with Sutherland’s aunty in mind. Ship 82’s name was auctioned to pay for the band, Sutherland somewhat cryptically told the audience.
The band, with Sutherland on fiddle, Mark Cumming on guitar, Ian Copland on drums and guest starring Ewan Vernal on bass, finished with a strong and stirring Mad Mike’s Return to Rum.
They were followed by Shetland favourites, Orkney’s Saltfishforty – their every expanding lineup of four due to become five for today’s gig at the festival club. Singer Brian Cromarty revealed they had come to Shetland a day early to acclimatise – a process that had led to fiddler Douglas Montgomery sprinting from the Lounge Bar to be sick – a claim hotly contested by Montgomery.
The powerful quartet kicked off with the relatively low-key song about the Maid of Norway, which was followed by a set of Canadian reels. There followed a crowd sing-along introduced as “Oh Dear”, after which Cromarty acutely observed “it’s a school night.”
Cromarty’s dead-pan wit came to the fore throughout; as a photographer ambled past the stage, he pointed and announced: “Its TV’s Davy Gardner!” which drew a good-natured chuckle from the audience.
Some of Saltfishforty’s high octane folk had splashes of Nova Scotian-style accordion, while they played one pure 12-bar blues number (the reviewer was reliably told).
At the end, Cromarty said: “That was all very quick and painless. I have a banjo for sale in High Level and that’s really the only thing I wanted to say,” which drew more titters from the crowd. Saltfishforty then finished on a high with the Glassel set.
Next up was the long-running local jazz outfit, Mahogany, and the crowd finally started to show signs of life as the quintet launched into a brilliant set of 20s, 30s and 40s jazz standards. Izzy Swanson and backing vocalists Carol Jamieson and Helen Tait were quite brilliant with a deep and smooth sound.
Drewie Robertson on Drums and Norman “Girsie” Leask on double bass, hit the nail square on the head rhythmically. Helen’s 14-year-old daughter Joanne also stepped up play at her first ever gig with a stint taking over from Girsie. Bulter doubled up as keyboard player when not on backing vocals and Tait played a mean sax.
Mahogany rattled through their set – Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, Sand in My Shoes, My Funny Valentine, Swinging on a Star, Stranger on the Shore and Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree – with such verve, style and all-round ability they were easily the act of the night so far.
After the break were two slightly longer sets. The first was a homecoming for Kevin Henderson, listed among the “visiting acts” as part of the three-piece Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. Representing “three of the richest fiddle traditions in the world” Henderson was accompanied by Norwegian Olav Luksengård Mjelva, who picked up a Hardanger fiddle for some tunes, and Anders Hall from Sweden.
The touring trio are all among the most talented young fiddlers in each of their own countries and the quality of their playing shone through their set. They were also introduced as the “best dressed act” by compere Mhari Pottinger.
The first tune was from Mjelva’s home town and it set the standard for the rest of the set. After that Hall began with a tune more or less from the “centre of Sweden” and Henderson introduced a traditional Whalsay reel. Whether it was the effect of the three playing together on the road together, the tunes from disparate traditions seemed to blend somewhat into one “mid North Sea” style.
The Greenlanders’ Tune followed, said to have been learned from Eskimos in the whaling days, and the trio played a piece of “forbidden” music from Norway, so inflaming that it had been banned by the police. This was accompanied by some dirty dancing between Henderson and Hall that was thankfully cut short when the lights went out.
The trio then played the American tunes Midnight on the Water, learned from Aly Bain, and Bonaparte’s Retreat.
Then came a Hardanger tune translated into English by Mjelva as “some kind of bird”, which Henderson corrected as “The Rough Legged Buzzard”. The Norwegian attributed this pedantry to Henderson’s obsession with bird watching which led to him disappearing in the hills and forests of Norway for hours at a time. Henderson explained that the reason he got into birdwatching was it was “incredibly boring touring with a Norwegian and a Swede”.
The trio finished with The Scalloway Lasses and Lorna’s Reel, but first thanked festival perennial Adie and Jennifer Wrigley for the first-rate sound and the lighting man, who had struggled manfully all night to make something of possibly the world’s worst stage lighting setup – something that is apparently a permanent feature of the otherwise excellent Legion.
Headliners the Mountain Firework Company immediately justified their show-topping status with a set of lyrically evocative, dark, moody and atmospheric numbers that were also immediately catchy.
The five-piece from Brighton, led by Belfast born Gareth McGahan on vocals and guitar, are sure to prove one of the most talked about acts at this year’s festival, playing a mix of country, bluegrass rock and folk that sound like it was written for the soundtrack of O’ Brother Where Art Thou.
The hillbilly vibe that runs through the band is reflected in the lyrical content and dark-toned music – broken hearts, apocalyptic disaster, moonshine, fire on the mountain and silver bullets flying – yeehaw! Catch them and you won’t be disappointed.