Entering the Carnegie Hall last night the first impression was how good the place looked, with an array of small fairy lights in the roof making for a homely feel.
First on had been Kansa, which this reviewer unfortunately missed due to having to be in two places at once. However, band member Robert Wishart assured me later they had been superb.
We won’t argue with that, having experienced their excellent mix of bluegrass and traditional fiddle tunes at Hillswick last year.
On stage when I arrived were Adam Holmes and the Embers, treating us to nigh on all the numbers from their album Heirs and Graces.
They were in the middle of what was later explained to be I can’t be Right, which was absolutely fantastic.
“You may have noticed that we’re not cheery foot-tappers,” Holmes told us, adding that the next song, Oh my God, was possibly their saddest one of all.
Never mind the cheery foot-tapping, this was great stuff, a delicious blend of folk and Americana.
“This one’s got a nice chorus,” said Holmes, referring to Fire in the Sun. “If anyone feels like singing, don’t! It puts me off!” I rather liked that, having experienced countless festival acts over the years desperately trying to enlist some audience participation when all the folk wanted to do was listen.
The committee are usually hailed for regularly bringing an array of high-energy, hot-stepping, head-banging acts to the isles. They deserve the highest of praise for digging out this band, a different genre entirely but likely to be one of the highlights of this year.
There is surely not a better fiddler in the isles than Bryan Gear, and accompanied by Violet Tulloch on piano they played a superb selection of tunes, made all the better by the acoustics in the hall and the sound man.
They began with a barnstorming set of new reels, which Gear said had been written for the recent Young Fiddler of the Year event. I didn’t catch all the names, but two of them sounded like Tommy’s Reel and Peerie Ertie’s 18th.
Two hornpipes from the legendary Sean McGuire came next, with Black’s Inspiration showing the artistry of what Gear can achieve with his long-bowing action. “Shut your eyes and you’re listening to Willie Hunter,” said a festival veteran at the same table.
That may well be so, but good as his mentor was, surely Gear can now be acclaimed in his own right.
Canadian waltzes, one of which he learned from last year’s visitor April Verch, were followed by magical Strathspeys.
Then came the moment many were waiting for – a slow air in the form of Quendale Bay, written by Phil Cunningham after the Braer grounding. Gear dedicated it jointly to festival stalwart Davie Henderson, who died earlier this year, and music pioneer Billy Kay who died this week.
After finishing they received the biggest round of applause all night.
With their members being fanatics of the Hot Club kind of swing jazz, Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, you knew what to expect of the next visiting band. And no-one was surely disappointed.
Fronted by Seonaid Aitken on fiddle and vocals, Rose Room also include Tom Watson on lead guitar, Tam Gallagher on rhythm guitar and Jimmy Moon, no stranger to the isles, on double bass.
Aitken won a Danny Kyle Award at Celtic Connections a few years ago, which is not surprising, but she vies for virtuosity with Watson, whose skills left their mark on many.
“Playing in the Carnegie Hall – we’ve made it,” Aitken joked.
There were great songs, including Exactly Like You, Chinatown My Chinatown (which was apparently written in 1907), Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me and It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie, before they ended with a delightful Russian melody.
Finishing the night were Newfoundland band The Dardanelles, who provided the kind of lively climax the festival is noted for.
Tom Power on guitar and vocals, Rich Klass on bodhran, Aaron Collis on accordion and Matthew Byrne on bouzouki and vocals were augmented by guest “Viking” Daniel Payne on fiddle.
They nearly didn’t come on at all, Power said, having considered how hard Rose Room were to follow. That was a nice touch and continues the festival feature of the appreciation of one band for another.
Power’s jokey demeanour and banter was well received, as was Byrne’s singing on Banks of Newfoundland. Their album title track Eastern Light was another stand-out while Badger Drive had an almost sea shanty feel to it.
Everyone wanted an encore but sadly the festival representative immediately dismissed any such thoughts. That was a real shame as after having been fulsome in her praise for everyone involved, allowing an extra five or 10 minutes would have been the icing on the cake.
Logic went out the window.
• Full folk festival coverage, including more reviews, reaction and photos in next week’s Shetland Times.