Music festival review: Shetland Folk Festival

Shetland's Kevin Henderson, Norway's Olav Lukseng�rd Mjelva and Sweden's Anders Hall. Picture: Dale Smith
Shetland's Kevin Henderson, Norway's Olav Lukseng�rd Mjelva and Sweden's Anders Hall. Picture: Dale Smith
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FOR roots-based musicians the world over, the Shetland Folk Festival ranks among the most coveted gigs on the circuit, combining elite international cachet with mighty craic.

Each year’s chosen artists, however – for whom the 12-hour Aberdeen-Lerwick crossing this time rounded off journeys from as far afield as Nashville, Newfoundland, Vancouver and various parts of Europe – are worked mercilessly hard for their fun: as one first-timer observed, it’s less like playing an ordinary festival than a short but intensive tour.

Between the main concerts, daytime community shows, workshops and late-night club slots, another performer reckoned to have played 17 gigs over the four days – plus umpteen additional hours purely for that aforementioned craic.

Even amid the Shetland programme’s fabled cornucopia of diverse contrasts and fresh discoveries, 2014’s most unexpected visitor was BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston, who was on the ferry with a camera crew, filming for a pre-referendum documentary: apparently he’s a deep-dyed folkie, and seemed delighted to officially open proceedings next day.

Yet more conspicuous by his absence was the sorely-missed Davie Henderson, longtime linchpin of the event’s voluntary organising committee and all-round stellar human being, who died suddenly in January: many were the glasses raised, stories shared and tears shed in his memory.

That feeling of being on tour (with distinct magical mystery overtones) certainly applied to concerts in the outer isles of Fetlar and Yell. Few places are further off the beaten track than Fetlar, two hours’ drive plus two more ferries from Lerwick, and home to just 80-odd people. Yet its 150-capacity community hall was crammed to overflowing, with an all-ages audience who were treated to a richly emblematic Shetland festival night, both in the vibrant local spirit that also filled the premises, and a line-up as diverse in style as it was consistent in quality.

Perhaps the night’s warmest ovation was reserved for Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, featuring Henderson’s son Kevin – one of Shetland’s finest fiddlers – with Olav Luksengård Mjelva, from Norway, and Sweden’s Anders Hall. Their intricately-patterned interplay, on viola and Hardanger fiddle as well as the standard model, thrillingly explored and extended the trio’s cultural common ground, blending otherworldly harmonies and earthy traditional textures with sublime chamber-classical finesse.

Completing a highlight-packed, three-hour show were Anna Massie & Mairearad Green’s brilliantly impish yet virtuosic guitar/accordion duelling; sophisticated soul/jazz balladry from Shetland’s Jennifer McCormick Band; sparkling tunes from young fellow locals Kollifirbolli, and Canadian duo Madison Violet’s potent, gutsy, country-folk/country-rock blend.

Glorious sunshine throughout the next day’s trip to Yell saw Shetland glowing in its full springtime beauty, with another capacity crowd entertained by such disparate delights as Edinburgh’s Adam Holmes and The Embers, delivering the epitome of sweet sorrow in his Americana-hued songcraft; popular Orkney duo Saltfishforty, here expanded to a five-piece, matching chiselled precision with bare-knuckle attack; and effervescent Irish sextet FullSet, providing a suitably rousing finish.

Further standouts over the weekend included two more fiddlers: the stupendous gypsy-jazz player Seonaid Aitken – also a superb singer – at the helm of quartet Rose Room, and Adam Sutherland, backed by three seasoned cohorts, taking trad-based composition into exciting new dimensions. And perhaps the biggest wow factor of all came courtesy of the dozen-strong Asham Stompers, championing the energetic percussive dance traditions of Canada’s Métis people – a dazzlingly fleet-footed hybrid of indigenous, Scottish, Irish and French influences, adding yet more distinctive flavours to Shetland’s own unique festival melting-pot.

Seen on 01-04.05.14