Shetland Folk Festival

Feature by Chris Silver | 15 Jun 2006

The unofficial climax of the Shetland Folk Festival arrived when least expected.

It's early on a Saturday morning at the festival club, and I find my feet along with hundreds of others crammed around the tiny main stage, pounding the floor to the irresistible harmonies and driving rhythms of homegrown folk heroes Fiddler's Bid. The entire room shakes with a collective rhythm that seems like it will never stop. The intimacy with the musicians is so profound, yet the sound is big enough to fill any stadium, and for a moment it seems as if this may well last forever as reel after reel builds further exhilaration among the crowd. Meanwhile, there's a man in a cap dancing on the monitors, who I recognize as the percussionist from visiting Estonian band Vägilased; suggestive of the international treasure that this festival has become.

The next night, by no means alone in feeling hungover, I feel ready to repent, never touch alcohol again and become the next Billy Graham. This is thanks to the glorious southern gospel light of No Hiding Place, by Tim and Molly O'Brien, who along with most of their family managed to turn a Shetland leisure centre, serving as the festival's biggest venue, into a southern church hall.

However, I later happen to encounter them in a less holy light at the festival club. Along with visiting Californian harp player Tom Ball, a Slovakian bass player, and a few Shetlanders they start an impromptu blues session in a corner on the way to the toilets. It was there that I heard music, albeit played slightly drunkenly, that anywhere else in the world I'd have to pay over twenty quid to see.

It is encounters such as these that reveal the Shetland Folk Festival's true spirit. Both performer and audience clearly have a brilliant time throughout the whole weekend, and in the definitively non-exclusive atmosphere of the festival club (anyone with a tenner to spare can become a member) the line between musician and music lover is blurred if not non existent. Not only does this create an atmosphere in which folk music will naturally flourish, but it also creates a strong "festival community." Performers don't just get drunk with the locals, they also live among them for the weekend.

This is perhaps what makes rural - and especially island - communities ideal locations for festivals. In the central belt sheer demographics would not allow for the level of intimacy enjoyed in Shetland unless ticket prices were ridiculously high, or the event highly specialized. In this sense the islands' isolation works in their favour - the numbers are manageable enough to keep the barriers down and the bouncers bored - while the Shetland community is strong enough to provide a buzzing setting.

Since Pete Seeger's Newport days there has been a strong emphasis on "mixing things up" at folk festivals and this is another area in which the Shetland experience excels. This year saw the likes of Dougie Maclean appearing alongside the impeccable and sultry Texas Swing of Elana James and the Continental two. This trio of native Texans are a group with spectacular virtuosity. Although Elana herself, who collaborated with Bob Dylan last year, provides a magnetic draw with her fiddle and voice, upright bassist Beau Sample's stunning bass solos took the meaning of swing to new levels.

If there was one act that disappointed my personal expectations it was Glasgow based brother and sister group Finniston. To be honest they didn't really live up to their apparent "alt folk" style, and came across more like James Blunt with a fiddle and accordion thrown in. Although I should also point out that they are apparently on the verge of great things. Yet it should be said that any band that writes about working in a deli, then presents it as a protest song might do with taking a long look at their image. Folk, with its strong tradition of protest through music, should have better things to protest about, than to dwell on the way that humus is packaged.

At the other end of the folk spectrum were Séamus Begley and Tim Edey, an accordion and guitar duo who produced a remarkable performance with minimal instrumentation and a good dose of Irish banter. Meanwhile, Scotland's folk supergroup, Session A9 trafficked a rocked up fiddle sound with them on the twelve hour boat journey to Shetland, and even on an island which probably has more fiddles per head among the population than anywhere else, managed to get a raucous reception from their audience. Along with the Tannahill Weavers, and STMA band of the year Back of the Moon these three groups provided a brilliant representation of the cream of Scottish traditional music.

Although the Folk festival is undoubtedly the high point of Shetland's musical year, the summer months remain filled with great music heading to the islands.

The Shetland Blues Festival takes place from the 16th to the 18th of June.

The Johnsmass Foy, Shetland's summer festival takes place between the 16th to 26th of June.