The 40th Shetland Folk Festival belatedly got under way last night (Thursday) after a two-year delay.
Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie Maclean, returning to the festival for the first time since 2006, headlined the opening night at Mareel while Frigg and Della Mae were in Cunningsburgh for the first rural show of his year’s festival.
At the “big kirk” in Lerwick, fittingly it was the man who has become the unofficial patron saint of the festival, J.P. Cormier, who kicked things off for an appreciative audience.
Making his fifth appearance at the festival, Cormier had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the moment he pronounced: “The most incredible place in the world is Shetland.”
A remarkable setting for any concert, let alone the curtain-raiser for the long-anticipated folk festival, the St. Columba’s Church crowd was enraptured from the moment local artist Arthur Nicolson took to the stage for the opening set of the night.
Describing himself as “like a bairn on Christmas Eve” the night before the gig, he treated folk to a few of his own songs, such as the popular Part of the Frame, before finishing on a double salvo of The Beatles’ Penny Lane and Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al – a set-closing duo that got feet tapping and heads nodding from the floor to the balcony of the grand church.
He was followed by the North Ness Boys, brothers Aubrey, Clive and Trevor Jamieson, and their extended young families.
They treated the audience to a number of gospel and traditional songs before finishing on the “somewhat overplayed”, in Trevor’s own words, Wagon Wheel.
Then came a surprise two-song performance from French outfit La Vent du Nord, who had not been scheduled to perform.
The performance was a surprise for the band and the organisers as much as anyone – they almost missed the festival after missing the NorthLink ferry north due to flight delays, before Loganair stepped in at the last minue to bring them to Shetland.
The eccentric group were an intriguing addition to the night – starting out like barbershop quintet, but with thundering percussion played by one members feet on the stage, it would have been good to have heard more of them.
But that will come in the days ahead, no doubt.
Then came the main event (following the raffle, of course) – Cormier simply cannot stay away from the festival and nor should he.
The Canadian brought with him another singer-songwriter, Dave Gunning, for his first visit and the audience were unsure what he would bring to Cormier’s stage show.
From the outset, it was clear that this was a match made in heaven, however.
Part masterful musicians, and part comedy duo, with interwoven harmonies, and intricate guitar duelling, it was evident immediately that the pair were a well-oiled live machine.
From the set-opener I Never Picked Cotton, a cover of a Roy Clark song once recorded by Johnny Cash, to the finale of The Backroads the pair were engaging company both during and between each song.
Cormier told the crowd Gunning had never even been to Scotland, let alone Shetland, before Wednesday, so he had treated him to a day of haggis and Tennent’s in Aberdeen to celebrate.
“People have been saying to me, ‘eww, not Tennent’s!'” Gunning replied.
Later, Cormier announced the pair had been trying to find a duet to play together for years.
“Something all romantic, so we can look into each others eyes all song,” Gunning interjected, before launching into a verse from Islands in the Stream.
After so many days, weeks, months and years of streaming songs, or listening to old CDs and records, instead of getting out to sample a live gig atmosphere, you got the sense that the big kirk crowd would have clapped and cheered if all four artists had come on stage and mimed Top of the Pops-style to their recordings.
Instead they were treated to something-akin to a religious experience on the opening night – long may it continue this weekend.