Saturday night at the Clickimin was a concert of two contrasting halves.
The first was steeped in the trans-Atlantic folk tradition of tunes passed from generation to generation while the other focused more on the North American roots and gospel movements.
Opening the night and in fine fettle were Eunice Henderson and her band of incredibly talented South Mainland fiddlers.
Bursting at the seams with Young Fiddler of the Year winners and runners-up the bunch of 14 talented bairns started with a set including two Bobby Tulloch compositions, finishing with a “tune from Voe”.
They next took us west with a Donald Shaw slow air, before coming “back to Shetland for the next set” of moving old tunes inspired by winter.
There were showcase moments for the Young Fiddler of the Year winners including a beautiful, bitter-sweet performance of Ashokan Farewell, with Fraser Tait, runner-up in the open competition, on lead fiddle accompanied by Senior Young Fiddle winner Sophie Moar.
But the biggest applause of the set was for Henderson’s “Peerie Jewels” playing Frank Jamieson’s Sandyburn Reel. The bairns may be tiny but the performance was fantastic and the raptures were deserved..
It was an excellent start to the night and paved the way for this reviewer’s highlight, The Dardanelles.
Led by charismatic guitarist Tom Power they launched with a ripping bunch of tunes. The combination of fiddle, accordion, guitar, bodhran and bouzouki was buzzing and it was difficult to take your eyes off Power as he leapt about the stage nodding his head like a mad man.
Between tunes he explained the band is from Newfoundland, an island a 12-hour ferry ride from the Canadian mainland, formerly sustained by fishing and now reliant on oil. “I don’t know if that sounds familiar”, he says to a good laugh before adding: “We were part of the British Empire, and in 1947 we left … Just saying.”
That was political enough and the focus returned to music with a superb set of jigs led by fiddler Daniel Payne, superbly accompanied by accordionist Aaron Collis, which confirmed what a talented bunch The Dardanelles are.
But they excelled most when it came to the songs.
Bouzouki man Matthew Byrne’s haunting voice, backed by beautiful melodies were wonderful and his performance of The Banks of Newfoundland moved things to a different level. For all the incredible reels and jigs it was the a capella performance of shanty, Leave Her Johnny Leave Her, that sticks in my mind. Simply brilliant.
After the break it was time for the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. I had been apprehensive about whether three men – a Shetlander, Kevin Henderson, a Norwegian, Olav Luksengård Mjelva and a Swede, Anders Hall – and three fiddles could capture the imagination. I shouldn’t have worried and this trio completed the fantastic first three-fifths of this concert.
First up was a Whalsay reel before the boys, unsurprisingly, took in tunes from Norway and Sweden. The banter between them was entertaining and the tunes switched from the upbeat (including a demonstration of an apparently illegal Swedish polka) to the mournful. But the most poignant moment of the night came when Henderson dedicated a tune, written by Mjelva about Henderson’s love of birdwatching, to his dad Davie. The round of applause said it all.
The fiddlers were followed by folk festival favourites, Canadian roots duo Madison Violet.
Compere Mhari Pottinger explained there had been many requests for the duo to return and the sell-out audience seemed to share her delight that they have returned – although some attempts at audience participation fell a little flat.
“You’re so polite,” says Lisa MacIssac diplomatically.
Now backed by a band (lap steel and guitar) there’s a completeness to the sound and the gravelly vocals of Brenly MacEachern deliver the clever lyrics with style. But, and I’m apparently in a minority for thinking this, the music does not resonate with me in the same way as that which preceded it.
The song that most caught my attention was written by MacEachern in honour of her 100-year-old grandmother Christie Ellen Frances. She bore 16 children as well as finding time to be a lighthouse keeper and captures MacEchern’s sense of loss. “This house it ain’t ever gonna be the same; Cause I doubt, you’re ever coming home again; But you put 32 mittens on 32 hands, and I love you Christie Ellen France.”
It was left to Vancouver-based gospel band The Sojourners to complete proceedings.
With a “Yello, ‘ello, ‘ello,” the charismatic group fills the stage. And the warm sound soon fills the Clickimin auditorium.
Musically there’s no doubt The Sojourners are incredibly tight with the trio of vocalists complementing each other and it’s easy to lose yourself in the sound.
But it is definitely music with a message and I find some of the “reaching out” a bit much. The between-song patter, seems a bit over-rehearsed and I’d rather simply hear the songs than the message.
That said the set takes in numbers by Curtis Mayfield and “Bobby Dylan’s” Thou Shall be Released. In doing so The Sojourners give the songs their own twist and the band does create a phenomenal sound. There are plenty in the crowd getting into the full swing and Woody Guthrie’s Ain’t Got no Home elicits the best audience sing-along all night.
It was a night dominated by Canadian groups who, in the folk festival tradition, brought an eclectic variety to the night while the ever nurtured local talent was given a platform.
There was something to enjoy throughout, but there’s no doubt it was the first three-fifths of the concert that impressed me most.