Holmes and Embers warm the crowd at Mareel

Folk crossover outfit Adam Holmes and the Embers made their way north on Wednesday for a second visit to Shetland, previously having played at this year’s Folk Festival.

The four-piece put on two gigs – Sandwick Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night – and Mareel on Thursday.

The packed Carnegie Hall gig, where Holmes was supported by Ella the Bird and Vair was said to have been a “phenomenal” event, so Mareel had something to live up to, and Holmes and his support acts of Arthur Nicholson and friends and Ella the Bird did not disappoint.

No stranger to the Mareel stage, Nicholson was first on, playing a selection of tunes, many of which are off his excellent debut solo album Sticks and Stones. He opened with the bright and breezy Make all the Right Mistakes, followed by Go For It and Call It as You See – the later in particular with an edgy, country inspired undertow.

Ready to Go and Part of the Frame followed – each song displaying the same clever lyrical approach as the other tracks on the album. Nicholson’s CD has earned glowing reviews and his attributes of excellent singing and careful picking are carried over perfectly to the stage.

He was then joined by Adam Guest and Louise Thomason – all three of whom appear on Guest’s newly released EP Open the Book. They played a couple of songs from that recording and the three gelled vocally and musically in a most pleasing manner.

The first track on the EP Salt in Every Breeze saw Guest in powerful and melodic voice and left-handed guitar with Nicholson on backing guitar and harmonies as was the honey-voiced Thomason.

The titular Open the Book was if anything even better, with its reflective and moving chorus repeated superbly by the three singers towards the end of the song.

Ella the bird
Ella the Bird takes flight at Sandwick. Photo: Dave Donaldson.

Ella the Bird –formerly known as Siobhan Wilson – was next up, and what a find she turned out to be for promoter Neil Riddell.

With a voice like a beam of light and sporting a sparkly top that outshone the starry Mareel backdrop by several million lumens, the young Glaswegian was a delightful presence on stage.

Her second song, Believe in Everything, was composed when her sister had her first baby and saw Ella stretch the word “everything” to three verses.

Ella’s lovely, breathy voice was perfectly complimented by her minimalist picking on the electric guitar which she swapped for the Roland electric piano for her next song – learned in France and sung in French and all the more enchanting for it.

She remained at the piano for her next song – a love song, before tackling Declan O’Rourke’s Galileo, once dubbed the perfect pop song, and executed that haunting melody perfectly.

Ella picked up a borrowed acoustic guitar for her next, more upbeat, number which may have been titled There’ll be a Tomorrow.

The main act kicked off with Holmes solo on vocals and electric guitar, singing about a girl. The Embers joined him for the second number which lifted the tempo and built from a slow beginning.

With a backing of bass guitar, full drum kit and electric piano, Adam Holmes and the Embers’ sound is difficult to pigeon hole – crossing boundaries between folk, pop and even old-time Scottish band music – especially when pianist and backing singer Colin Traynor swapped piano for the accordion.

Holmes’s laconic stage presence is so laid back he makes Val Doonecan seem like The Cockney Rejects. But the Edinburgh born performer’s sardonic wit gradually emerged and he had the audience chuckling along at various quips

There’s no doubt Holmes specialises in the downbeat and melancholy but there was also no doubting the quality of the composition and musicianship on display.

John Lowrie’s drums were mostly restrained, as befitted the music, but at times swelled to the oceanic.

The group played the first song Holmes ever wrote, for a girl who then went to London and Holmes never saw her again! “Thus is life” seemed to be the message of the evening, and it probably is most of the time.

The band occasionally strayed into a more up-tempo frame and did so for the next couple of songs before Holmes went solo again for a song about another girl who went to Aberdeen. Titled Nicole, but not the Chuck Berry version, this moody, not to say gloomy, number was followed by  another song about a girl – this one titled Mary.

But if these sad numbers were not enough Holmes and the Embers launched into another with the cracking lyrics “Oh my God I’m going to die when I get old and I’m not ready”.

“I wrote that when we were landing at Sumburgh yesterday,” joked Holmes to the appreciative mirth of the audience.

After that a song about getting ripped off by a dodgy builder seemed like Chas and Dave by comparison.

Holmes introduced bassist and birthday boy Alex Hunter who played a quick solo. This had sent the crowd wild in Carnegie Hall with clothes being ripped off and tables thrown around. This was never likely to happen in Mareel, but Hunter did get the cheer of the night.

Many of Holmes’s songs are contained in last year’s Heirs & Graces album which was also on sale at Mareel.

The band finished with another slow one before Holmes was back on stage by himself for an encore, this time singing Mother Oak – about his two favourite places – The Royal Oak and Mother India – the famous folk pub and restaurant being handily next door to one another in Edinburgh.


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