The concert in Burra on the first night of 29th Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival proved to be a memorable show.
It might be described as a tale of two fiddlers – Roddy Matthews of Northumberland and Manus McGuire from Sligo. Both of them are well known in Shetland and both are not only great fiddle players but real gentlemen.
Compere Nicol McLaren opened proceedings and introduced the first act, local band Gussie & Co. They were something of a departure from the strict description of the festival insofar as there was no fiddler on stage and the single accordionist, Michael Philip, played seconds.
Lead performers were twin pipers Arran Philip, son of Michael, and Gussie Angus himself. They were backed by Peter Wood on keyboard and John Leask on drums.
The balance of the sound was not always exactly right but they played a wide variety of music ranging from marches, meat and drink to Highland pipes, to slow airs like Highland Cathedral. They achieved great snap and drive in the strathspeys and reels.
Next came Roddy Matthews and with him Jim Nichols on keyboard. Jim has his roots in the farms of the Cheviot Hills and the right man for the job. Roddy played a number of his own tunes, tunes that are quality and deserve to be remembered, and played, by other musicians. He spoke of the many musicians he learned from, many of them from Scotland’s west coast and islands.
A man who had colossal influence of the music of Northumberland was 19th century fiddler James Hill. Roddy played some of his many tunes including the one he composed and named after his favourite pub The Hawk in Gateshead.
Roddy gave us a few “rants” as well. A rant is a dance style and he described it as “a bit like the Shetland back step except that it is a front step”. Roddy’s love of Shetland shone through. Whether he performs as a soloist or with a band like that of Robert Whitehead he is always welcome.
Seventeen-year-old accordionist Emma Dickson brought the first half of the concert to a close. She is simply brilliant, she is classically trained but enjoys tangos and musettes with Scottish tunes thrown into the mix. It is easy to see why she has made such a huge impact in competitions.
One notable understatement was that “she certainly knows her way around an accordion”. Emma is a first-year law student but she will always have her abundant musical talent as a second string.
After Emma Dickson came another accordionist, Brian Morrison. With him was his eleven year old son Ally on keyboard, Colin Sutherland, drums and Alastair Macleod from Mull, son of legendary band leader Bobby Macleod, on double bass.
Brian adds lots of ornamentation to the tunes but maintains an even tempo that comes from years of experience playing for dancers.
One favourite tune is Dinkie’s Reel, a Donegal classic. Dinkie Dorrian was a butcher in Killibegs and this was his favourite tune to dance to. It would have been lost had it not been collected by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1948 from Francie Byrne from Kilcar. It was brought to Shetland by Dermot McLaughlin and Tom Trainor in the 1980s. This was a lovely spot – more power to you Brian.
In the programme there was no mention of anyone playing with Manus McGuire but it came as no surprise when Margaret Robertson took her seat at the keyboard. No better person to accompany the maestro. Jackie Robertson on double bass added the extra dimension. McGuire started off with two waltzes, Westphalia Waltz and Geneveve, one that he wrote for his wife.
If the start was sedate the pace, the drive and the sheer magic of the man broke through. By the time that he came to the last set of reels composed by Cavan man Ed Reavy he was flying. That said he always has correctness and precision and an almost unique style of holding the neck of the fiddle in the palm of his hand. It was stunning performance.
Manus, now aged 60, has recently retired from being a GP and he will now concentrate on his music. He is now off to America for a six-week tour with the fantastic Brock-McGuire band, the first gig being in Nashville this coming Tuesday.
The penultimate band had a powerful Whalsay presence and was ably led by 19-year-old Callum Irvine on lead accordion. At centre stage was his aunts Linda and Pauline and in all they were seven strong.
Margaret Robertson surrendered her place at the keyboard to make a fiddle trio, playing Kathleen’s Diamond Waltz written for the mother of the Irvine lasses. There was plenty of variety here. A most pleasing aspect of the evening was the way that numerous musicians supported each other by appearing in more than one act.
The “sitting down” part of the entertainment finished with headline band Neil Hardie. They are an orthodox Scottish outfit, two piano accordions, fiddle, double bass and drums. After supper and raffle they played for the dance.
Well done to Peter Leask, his committee and the hall committee for a wonderful night.