Islesburgh’s Thursday night Folk Festival concert provided a healthy mix of folky styles that won the approval of visiting audience members of travelling and local acts alike.
Sadly the reviewer arrived in Room 16 just as the final notes of Shetland Fiddlers’ Society’s set were fading, but they sounded like they were in tune!
So the first act to be witnessed were the American banjo duo of The Lowest Pair. Dressed in Hillbilly chic, the diminutive and lovely Kendle Winter and the less diminutive Palmer T Lee made musical magic on the Islesburgh stage.
Winter, born in Arkansas but living in Seattle, has a high, almost Mini-Mouse tone that is beguiling to hear and took turns on lead vocals with Lee, their voices and banjos (or guitars, as both played both) coiling round one another in sweet counterpoint.
The banjo as an instrument is a curiously expressive one that can produce comedic, atmospheric and even sinister tones that are a step away from moonshine madness.
As Lee, a native of Michigan, put it, any banjo band that takes the stage has to play a tune about a chicken or a murder ballad.
His stage patter was a reminder of the dry wit many Americans possess, which is easily forgotten in this era of Trump idiocies.
Their first, whimsical, number Lee said was a “true story”. He added: “The next one is a fantasy about what it’s like to screw up in life over and over and over again. I wrote this one.”
About failure or not, it was a good going, up-tempo number followed by a romantic balled entitled Rosie.
Then followed a string of songs that varied widely in tempo and mood, all picked out expertly on banjo and guitar. “Icky, icky doo” began one – presumably the chicken song.
Winter also told her tales, including one about encountering a drunk bear in the “beautiful” Olympic Peninsula.
The first song the pair wrote together, “successfully”, said Lee to the chuckles of the audience, was about the stormy relationship between a country mouse and a city mouse. It was also one of their highlights.
Then followed the dark and moody murder ballad Darling Corey, written to an old Appalachian tune.
Up next was Syrian maestro of the kanun – a type of zither – Maya Youssef and her supporting musicians cellist Barney Morse-Brown and percussionist Elizabeth Nott, who played what appeared to be a tambourine without the bells and a large bhodran like skin drum using both hands and no sticks.
It was a dramatic change of pace and tone from what had gone before. Youssef at times produced a wonderful cascade of notes from the kanun that matched her black mop of hair, while at other times the music took on a harsh, metallic, quality or was gentle enough to lullaby a six-and-a-half month old baby who was sitting next to the reviewer.
Of course many of Youssef’s songs reference the ongoing civil war in her homeland. She had experienced bombing herself and this had led to a dream about a bomb turning to roses as it was about to land near her. This inspired a tune which she wrote in the morning – Bombs Turn Into Roses.
Youssef, who must have spent a fair bit of time in London by her accent, explained the complexities of the 78-string Kanun and the Arabic musical scale – it includes a flat quarter that doesn’t exist in Western music.
The trio’s music, it has to be said, sounded at times lie the soundtrack for a Hollywood Hope and Crosby travel caper, but all in all, it was an enthralling introduction to a different type of folk and instrument.
The North Ness boys provided another shift in gear to completely different musical terrain. Their effortless harmonising and accomplished playing bowled over Canadian visitors Michael M’Gonigle and Wendy Wickwine, whose son Patrick is playing fiddle in The Lonely Heartstring Band. Patrick’s girlfriend Allison de Groot is the banjo player in The Goodbye Girls, making the festival a family event for the Canadians.
Wendy is also researching for a book on “amazing” Shetlander Jimmy Tait who emigrated to Vancouver about 100 years ago before heading into the vast interior and changing his name to the old spelling of Teit. She hopes to be back to publish it in two years time.
Clive Jamieson on lead vocals and guitar and his brothers Trevor, harmony and mandolin and Aubrey on bass vocal and guitar were simply fantastic.
Their mix of country gospel and Shetland songs, originals and covers, was well chosen and their version of the classic Rowin Foula Doon was probably the best the reviewer has ever heard, especially the harmonies. They rounded off with an excellent rocked-up version of the hymn Rock of Ages.
Headlining act New Road hail from Ireland, apart from Californian Rick Epping, who expertly plays harmonica and umpteen other things, and play a mixture of “Irish traditional, Appalachian old-time, blues and beyond”.
They are undoubtedly a good going and crowd-pleasing act though perhaps fairly standard fair for the folk festival as it has come to sound over the last decade or so.
Leonard Barry on the Uillean pipes has an easy rapport with the audience and made the pipes blend seemlessly with the fiddle of Andy Morrow and guitar of Shane McGowan.
Jigs seemed to predominate in New Road’s set, but they were at their finest – personal preference – when breaking into song, with Epping providing most of the vocals.
Based on this evidence, music fans are in for an enjoyable and interesting 37th festival.