Take six of the world’s top female fiddlers, throw in a quartet of piano, bass, guitar and percussion, bring them altogether on a stage and you have the amazing chemistry that is String Sisters.
And their concert at Mareel on Friday, their only European gig this year, demonstrated just how well the mix works.
There’s always a risk that six solo performers at the top of their profession will not necessarily gel within a group, but there were no worries here with a feeling of real camaraderie, a proper co-operative in all senses of the word.
The group were formed way back in 1998 at Celtic Connections by Shetland’s own Catriona Macdonald and have come together as frequently as solo careers have allowed. However this gig was on the back of a lengthy recording session at Mareel over the past week for a new album due for release early next year.
Macdonald was joined by Annbjørg Lien an old friend from Norway, Emma Härdelin from Sweden, Liz Carroll and Liz Knowles, both from the USA, and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh from Ireland.
From an atmospheric opening piece, April Child, starting with solo fiddle, they moved into an exciting jig of Macdonald’s The Joy of It, which set the tone for the rest of the night. It was a mixture of strong, driving beat and polyphonic strings contrasting with some of the most haunting songs I’ve heard for a while.
The backing from the “Misters” comprising Dave Milligan on piano, Tore Bruveoll (guitar), Conrad Molleson (bass) and James Mackintosh on drums and variety of percussion gave incredible support as well as shining individually in several pieces.
Many of the tunes we heard were written by group members including the splendid G Strings, by Annbjørg which allowed her Hardanger fiddle to come to the fore in a gutsy piece with strong offbeats as the others joined in. Liz Knowles was another composer whose music was highlighted including Rumble with its shifting metres and driving rhythm.
To contrast the instrumental we were treated to Swedish folksongs by Emma and Irish songs by Ní Mhaonaigh whose Matchmaking Song, a traditional piece was poignantly left hanging in the air at the end.
A set of tunes by Liz Carroll from Chicago demonstrated well the chemistry of this group; varied instrumentation, a basic tune with counter melodies, drones, polyphonic fiddling and syncopated energy. Even sitting down, due to a foot injury, fiddler Liz Carroll was able to convey the excitement and enthusiasm in the pieces that had everyone foot tapping.
Part of the magic is in bringing all the individual skills of these performers together and how they all share a common musical vision.
In the second half of the evening they all shared that vision on stage with a group of talented young Shetland fiddlers, all still at school but clearly gaining confidence from working with String Sisters. Passing on such skills is commendable and a formative experience for these youngsters.
Back on their own the String Sisters continued with a Scandinavian theme, Tiger Polska, with lovely syncopated rhythms. What followed was a Swedish song that I can only describe as Scandi noir in its hauntingly atmospheric setting with bare piano chords, the lightest of accompaniment, and was beautifully sung by Emma Härdelin.
Ní Mhaonaigh also gave us a haunting song, a child ballad called The Twa Sisters, “gruesome, but nice” as she described the piece in which a jealous sister makes a fiddle from the body of the sister she’s just murdered.
Late night in Førde brought the 10 musicians back together for a while and Norway also featured in a duet by Catriona and Annbjørg, The Shingly Beach, the music of the man who brought them together originally in Maløy, Tom Anderson.
The end of the evening brought the return of the young fiddlers on stage and a set of reels that were full of vitality and almost rounded off a stunning concert; but there was time for one more Swedish murder ballad given the folk rock treatment and included an amazing jazz solo break on the Steinway by Dave Milligan.
String Sisters have clearly enjoyed their Shetland sojourn in what they class as “the best music venue in the UK” and I for one look forward to their return. Look out too for their new album to be launched at Celtic Connections in January ahead of a new tour next year.