Music review: 30th Shetland Folk Festival

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THE tagline on the commemorative beer mat reads "No sleep since 1981" – that being when the Shetland Folk Festival first took place, ensuring an extra-almighty spree for this year's 30th.

The mat's flipside states that the late-night Festival Club is sponsored by a Lerwick shipping contractor: Your Partner In Marine Renewables.

The juxtaposition conveys just a tiny flavour of this event's singular character – as does the fact that one visiting sound engineer, arriving at his weekend lodgings off the overnight ferry last Thursday, was told he might need to help with the lambing if his hosts were short-handed.

The local, however, was once again wholly in harmony with the global. A richly diverse and adventurous line-up took in the Indian/German quartet Ahimsa, fusing Carnatic tradition with contemporary jazz (and featuring a two-necked, ten-string electric violin); sultry Slovenian torch-pop from Eva Hren & Sladcore; Swedish trio Baskery's high-octane hillbilly punk, and Brooklyn combo The Wiyos' slick, rakish mix of retro Americana styles, deftly laced with dub, soul and funk.

From much closer to home, by contrast, came Orcadian eight-piece The Chair, pitted on Friday night in an epic inter-county face-off with Shetland supergroup Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag.

Based on volume of audience response, The Chair were eventually declared victorious, thus claiming ownership of Fair Isle – that being the agreed prize – at least until the rematch, which will be at next month's Orkney Folk Festival.

Elsewhere in the programme, traditional folk forms and sounds were bent into a multitude of innovative and unexpected shapes.

The brilliantly puckish pairing of concertina player Simon Thoumire and guitarist Ian Carr rendered even tunes as classic as The Mason's Apron and Calliope House magically afresh, teeming with joyous virtuosity.

Meanwhile, renegade power-trio Lau were on marvellously mad, bad and dangerous form, flirting outrageously with musical chaos, in amongst passages of majestic, luxuriant beauty.

And just for something even more completely different, a hilariously deranged set from The New Rope String Band included an old Scottish bagpipe jig – played by whacking various lengths (and thus pitches) of plastic tubing off themselves and each other – plus the best send-up of Morris dancing ever.

As with both Baskery and Lau, another strand within the bill comprised three-member acts who sounded at least double that size.

Also in this category were Sweden's justly legendary Vsen, whose highly particular instrumentation – 12-string guitar, five-string viola and, a 16-string keyed fiddle – allied with master musicianship, creates a sound of mesmerising grandeur, density and lyricism.

So too were The Unwanted, a newish collaboration between three long-renowned talents – erstwhile Dervish colleagues Cathy Jordan (vocals/bodhran) and Seamus O'Dowd (vocals/guitar/fiddle), plus California native Rick Epping (harmonica/concertina/jaw harp) – performing an artfully sourced and blended array of material, traditional and modern, from the Atlantic fringes, delivered with an incandescent intensity of feeling that swiftly established them among Shetland's new favourite bands.

And as the late-night craic and music-making continued, as ever, until well into the mornings, the island's 30th festival again underscored why, among the world's leading folk artists, it is a consummation so devoutly to be wished.