Music review: Shetland Folk Festival, various venues, Shetland

Given the daunting logistics of getting several dozen international musicians all the way to Shetland, confining the resultant festival to the islands’ main town might seem eminently forgivable, indeed sensible. Inscribed in Shetland Folk Festival’s constitution, however, is an absolute interdict on its ever becoming a Lerwick-only event – and thus right from its opening day, after most of the line-up disembarks the overnight boat from Aberdeen on Thursday morning, concert parties are marshalled on to buses and dispatched to community halls the length and breadth of Britain’s most northerly archipelago, up to two more hours away by road and inter-island ferry.

Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente
Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente

Shetland Folk Festival, various venues, Shetland *****

Friday’s trip to Burravoe in Yell, the second topmost of Shetland’s islands, was one of nine out-of-town shows this year, delighting a capacity crowd – spanning ages from babes-in-arms to octogenarians – with a characteristically diverse, discerningly programmed festival bill.

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Lewis native Josie Duncan’s boldly arrayed traditional and original songs, in English and Gaelic, allied with Pedro Lafuente’s mettlesome, inventive guitar work, ranged from funked-up puirt-a-beul to potently emotive indie-folk, while Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo presented a dazzling masterclass in prodigiously fluent fingering, luxuriant pan-Celtic melodicism, and extracting noises from his instrument it was surely never intended to make.

May Erlewine

Ultimately, however, the night belonged to Cape Breton singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist/fingerpicker extraordinaire JP Cormier, on his fourth Shetland visit, and likewise his fourth to Yell, where he and local audiences have forged an especially heartfelt bond.

He was partnered this time by the equally extraordinary Anglo-Irish guitarist/accordionist Tim Edey, following the release of their duo album Once, recorded in a single afternoon’s extemporised session. Similarly, here, their jaw-dropping 45-minute set was delivered entirely sans rehearsal or pre-planning, taking the form of a marvellously free-roaming musical conversation, and/or exercise in creative telepathy, peppered with humour and surprises in amongst lashings of pyrotechnic virtuosity.

Equally characteristic of Shetland’s festival programming was the outstanding calibre of local acts billed alongside the visitors, with sizzling stringband Vair and Arthur Nicholson’s superb original folk-pop – variously echoing such classy, classic sounds as Billy Joel, Bob Seger and REM – flying the home flag in world-class style.

A further such highlight, at Saturday’s concert in Lerwick’s Mareel venue, was only the third-ever performance by all-female quartet Hjerka, whose bewitching harmony arrangements and artfully understated instrumentation justly earned some of the night’s loudest applause.

With Hjerka and the aforementioned Josie Duncan among them, there was a marked strand of strikingly characterful female voices throughout the weekend’s line-up. Other standouts included the rich, gutsy singing of The Jaywalkers’ Jay Bradberry, amid the trio’s old-timey mix of Americana covers and originals – positively oozing with labour-of-love authenticity, despite their being from Chester – and Michigan’s captivating May Erlewine, whose delectably dulcet tones and delicately nuanced delivery blended shades of Nanci Griffith-esque country-folk with the urbanite quizzicality of a Dar Williams or Lucy Kaplansky.

Overall, though, contrast remained of the essence in the festival’s curation, taking in such disparate star turns as Les Fils Canouche’s adventurous modern French gypsy-jazz, centred on bass clarinet and accordion; Bon Débarras’s sparkling French-Canadian mash-up of traditional songs, tunes and dance with blues, rap and swing, and young Highland heroes Elephant Sessions’ epic, floor-filling fusion of trad, rock, funk, pop and electronica, adding a heady dash of rave-style euphoria into Shetland’s comprehensively intoxicating mix. Sue Wilson