With an explosion of bluegrass, local fiddlers and Irish reels the 36th Shetland Folk Festival burst into action in Cunningsburgh Hall last night.
It was a concert that set the bar high and whet the appetite for what lies ahead this weekend for what promises to be another great festival.
The bluegrass element of the memorable opening night came courtesy of Colorado-based Railsplitters – a five-piece brimming with fun and musicality.
There had been a wait of “two long years” to get them to the festival, the audience was told as the headline act was introduced. It was worth the wait.
Without a pause the band launched into a classic, Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes, before frontwoman Lauren Stovall explained the band was on a four-week tour. Already, she said, the folk festival was the highlight – and that was before they had sampled the festival club.
Stovall’s petite appearance belies the powerful sound she creates giving a distinctive vocal element to the Railsplitters.
Later she explained that the band has taken the bluegrass sound and twisted into something more like “new time bluegrassy music”. That description does not do it justice.
The star of the show for me is Dusty Rider (“that really is his name” we were told) whose dexterity on the five-string banjo is something to behold. Rolling away with ease his playing, along with Leslie Ziegler’s double bass, drives the whole sound.
Rider’s melodic runs up and down the fretboard added an unexpected layer to the complex flow of notes emanating from his well-worn banjo.
Railsplitters are one of those “lively” acts the festival committee likes to add to the line-up, and judging by last night’s gig there’s little doubt they will prove a hit.
If that was a rip-roaring climax to the night’s entertainment things had got off to a more sedate start with local singer-songwriter Arthur Nicholson.
His performances seem to get better every time I see him and he was – unsurprisingly – at ease with the opening slot.
At times Nicholson twists his left hand into seemingly impossible positions to produce his trademark licks, all of which are backed up by sweet lyrics. There was the odd note he struggled to hit in the ridiculously difficult solo performance of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, but would anyone else be brave enough to try it?
Many of Nicholson’s now familiar tracks – including the catchy Part of the Frame – had the added benefit of a mini “choir”, courtesy of the members of High Level’s Micro Bru ukulele students who were at the front of the crowd. They were singing along to every word and bringing a smile to Nicholson’s face. Was this a debut festival performance from the next generation?
Wör followed Nicholson on stage with pipes, fiddle, accordion, guitar and bass saxophone. It seems an unusual combination of instruments but it works.
Inspired by 18th century “party music” the Belgian band has given a modern twist to tunes that would have originally been played by organ and carillon. It’s fusion music of a kind, except the fusion is between old and new.
The “courtly” feel of the tunes remains but they are delivered in tub-thumping style. One gripe would be that the powerful sound of the pipes and saxophone can at times overpower the fiddle and accordion.
This is not music for the faint-hearted but, much like Habadekuk who were at the festival last year, will get the party going. The second local act of the evening was Haltadans who took us on a captivating musical tour of “psychedelic” Nesting, Foula and Sweden.
The three fiddles of Lois Nicol, Maurice Henderson and Ewen Thomson sing as one, with each complementing the others’ playing. With the intricate accompaniment of guitarist Grant Nicol and bassist John Clark, Haltadans is a well-drilled musical machine which when in full flow produces a spectacular sound. Shetland music at its best.
“We’re not going to slow down,” said Lois after the first set. “We have got lots of reels to get through.” She was not kidding and their set of tunes fairly flew by.
It was left to the Alan Kelly Gang to complete the line-up in that pre-raffle slot. The “gang” is a cosmopolitan combination of supremely talented musicians led by Kelly on the piano accordion.
There’s a distinctly Irish flavour to the jigs and reels they serve up with New York singer Steph Geremia adding an ethereal sound with her flute playing and the playing is flawless.
Geremia only sang twice – one Tim O’Brien and one Kris Drever song. Hers is a fine, almost classical voice but I found the songs did not captivate me in the same way as those that followed when the Railsplitters hit the stage. Given that Geremia’s attempted singalong did not quite set the room alight perhaps others felt the same too.
The Alan Kelly Gang seemed to be at its best when playing tunes and the highlight for me was the set beginning with January Gales followed by two Kelly-penned jigs The Moth and The Exorcist – named after a friend who won’t leave until all the spirits are gone. Exceptional stuff.
It seems hard to believe that a year has passed since I was writing about Flook and Habadekuk after the opening night of 2015’s festival.
Those band’s CDs have been regularly played on my drive to work since. The Wör and Railsplitters albums I picked up on Thursday night are likely to suffer the same fate.