Return from Northern Fantasies!
Tuesday, May 8th/Wednesday, May 9th. . .
Eyes tired, legs tired, feet wet. Strange images come drifting into my consciousness like the strange squiggles on one’s eyeballs, lingering in frame and then drifting out again . . . cacophony of fiddles and tenor banjos and voices . . . strange and twisty Finnish and Belgian melodies . . . many cans and bottles, bottoms tipped skyward . . . hundreds of clapping Shetlanders . . . sensational musicians in every direction and from all corners of the Earth . . . Ed in a black dress, festooned with Tiger-lilies . . . shaggy ponies with stubby legs . . . watching six dawns in a row on the back end of the evening . . . Scottish breakfasts . . . Ed in a lilac bridesmaid dress and bloomers . . . could this be real? Have we been dreaming?
No, not a dream in any literal sense of the word, but certainly a music lover’s dream and a musician’s dream – the Shetland Folk Festival, you know? It would be a fool’s errand for me to attempt a day by day breakdown of our time, but let’s attempt a synopsis . . .
The whole festival begins at the ferry terminal in Aberdeen. We were greeted by a number of the organizers and staff of the festival, who had gone so far as to find pictures of each of us so as to know our names when we arrived. This level of care and attention to detail was with us throughout the entire festival; rarely to never before have we been treated with such a degree of warmth and welcome. After loading onto the ferry and stashing our stuff in our cabin (a 4 bedder, with Graham and Shannon in their own (I assume) palatial double cabin), we walked up to the main deck to see what was what. Jamming had already begun throughout the ferry bar and lounge, mostly of a Scottish nature. There were some familiar faces, and a lot of new faces to be seen and some excellent music floating through the air. We ran into Andrew – promoter at the Blue Lamp in Aberdeen and a Shetlander by birth, and shot the shit with him in preparation for our weekend. He portended the same scene that others had before him – 6 days of non stop music, boozing, and general madness. No one could say that we weren’t warned, no?
We took to jamming on the ferry, mostly in an old-timey fashion, much to the pleasure of those within earshot. It’s a particular mental exercise well-known to all veterans of fiddler’s conventions – to tone out 360 degrees of alternate melodies and focus in exclusively on the one that’s happening 2 feet from your head. Di-synchronous listening, they call it (or something . . . I heard a BBC Radio 4 article on it), wherein you focus on one sound but keep your ears open for the possibility of a predator attacking from behind or above. At one point, a fairly enthusiastic and well-besotted fellow came bursting into the lounge where we were playing, rolling around on the floor, upending chairs and tables. We later learned that his name was Stefan (“Hurricane Stefan” to his friends), and he plays bass with Rory Ellis. Try as hard as we might, we find it nearly impossible to be the misbehaving-est band at most fests; though, if you listen closely, we may be the shit-talking-est, mostly about one another.
We played music and caroused well into the evening, chatting with some of the other musicians and getting ourselves into festival mode, eventually retiring to our cabin for a few hours of sleep. Imagine, if you will, the heat and atmosphere of a 5x12x10 room after four full grown, strapping, well fed, and somewhat inebriated gents practice deep inhalation and exhalation in it for 4 or 5 hours. Kind of a musk-sauna, if you will. Around 6am, Ed began his sonata of snoring (as described in the May 3rd blog entry), and I awoke to pace the deck. We docked about 7pm.
Upon landing, we were greeted by even more of the festival staff and taken to the festival club, and from there, we dispersed to a variety of host houses. One of the cool aspects of this festival is the host housing. Rather than put the musicians up in a single hotel or some such thing, we are basically integrated into the community for a week. Perhaps this seems like a mushy or hyperbolic statement, but it really works to make us feel at home to be staying in a home, rather than a random anonymous room. Thanks to David and Jennifer, Colin and Ruth, and Zoe and Neil (and Crystal and Abby) for allowing us to invade your space (the truth of the matter is, given that we were rolling in around 5-10am and rolling out around 3pm each day, we didn’t interact as much as we would have under more normal circumstances).
After settling in, we went back to the festival club – the central point for all arrivals and departures, and took part in a slam-bang production wherein every band at the festival performed a single song. This is no small feat, given that there were 50+ bands at the festival, both local and visiting. One thing that struck us in this moment, and that would continue to prove true, is the utter calmness of the staff, soundmen, and volunteers throughout even the most time-sensitive occasions. It’s often the case at festivals that the behind the scenes crew can get a bit . . . worked up over every small deadline and backstage call, but the folks here have clearly worked with a rabble of musicians before, and know that we have a particular kind of punctuality. Rather than fight against it, they worked with it, and everything went smoothly and no one had a freak-out. In other words, this was not their first rodeo.
Let’s pause and just talk about the bands. So many bands. Certainly, many of them fell into the Scottish/Irish persuasion; but, of course, within that distinction there are many variants – pipe duets, fiddle bands, killer tenor banjo players (including a fellow with an X-Ray stretched over his head – the coolest skin I’d ever seen), accordionists, and singers. There were also some modern, “neo-trad” bands who marry rock, jazz and funk with Irish, Scottish, Cape Bretonese, and other traditions (ManRan, Sprag Sessions, Treacherous Orchestra). There were Scandanavians with twisty melodies (Baltic Crossing, Kan), and a killer Belgian jazz trio called KV Express that featured the astounding Sophie Chavez on diatonic button accordion and a bassist named Cedric who played a 6-string fretless bass the size of a coffee table. Let’s see . . . there was a group called Kasai Masai that featured musicians from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo who played what they called “Sunshine Music,” and there were a few other bluegrass-y troupes, specifically the totally virtuosic J.P. Cormier & the Elliot Brothers, and The Alison Brown Acoustic Quartet with John Doyle and Casey Driessen (enough said). Phew! And that’s just a little glossing over.
And then there were the Shetland groups. The Shetland style of playing features really peppy fiddle melodies, similar to other brands of Celtic music, but backed by rhythm guitar straight out of the Eddie Lang playbook. It makes for a highly enjoyable sound – complex but completely approachable. Much like the stories of old time Appalachia (and the truth of a lot of modern Appalachia), nearly everyone plays some music. Many of the localities provide free instruction to kids, and music is highly valued throughout the community. This also makes for some of the best audiences in the world – highly knowledgeable about music in general, and very receptive to those of us who like a little parody and pageantry (parogeantry?) with our performance. And speaking of the shows . . .
Unlike what many of you dear readers probably envision when you hear/read the word “festival,” this is an entirely different scene. The whole of the festival was based out of Lerwick, the largest town in the Shetlands (roughly 12,000 of the Shetlands’ 22,000 residents live in this town), however, the concerts take place in small to large village halls throughout the islands. See, while people DO travel to the Shetlands for the festival, the majority of the shows are put on for the benefit of the residents of the islands (when you live in the middle of the North Sea, you sometimes have to import entertainment, no?). A 3-5 band lineup is picked up from the Festival Club and driven hither and yon, sometimes taking additional ferries to get to their destinations. Nearly every show was sold out, and the crowds were intensely appreciative, which gave us a great amount of motivation to provide our highest level of entertainment.
And I like to think we provided just that. We played a show every day, sharing the bills with many of the bands I mentioned. Without going into great detail about each performance, I’ll say we kept it somewhat close to the vest for most nights, only venturing into the slightly left of center material (Peaches, Perugia, Old Trash Can), and supplying a good deal of old time, ragtime, and bluegrass-y business. It was all received well, I think; many of the staff and audience members were especially taken with Peaches, and by our 3rd concert, we were getting requests and folks were singing along. We are not, as you may know, the kind of band who excels in writing sing-alongs or in having folks make requests beyond “play Oh Brother Where Art Thou!”, so this was heartening and unusual for us.
I say most nights, because we did find ourselves itching to get a little strange, so on Sunday, our final day of performances, we did stretch out and treat the audiences to a little bit of the Beefy Cheese Boogie and Don’t Worry About The Poor. As usual, we were worried about nothing, they went over like gangbusters and made us wish we’d been feeding more of that side of ourselves into every performance. You can read a good review of on of our shows at the largest venue, the Clickimin Sports Centre, HERE.
Sunday was also the day of the “Festival Foy.” “Foy” means, I believe, “fun” in Shetland-ese (more on this in a bit). This is an amazing event that happens in three venues and involves EVERY visiting band playing a 15 minute set in each venue. You set up, play a set, then take down, get driven to a different venue, and do it again, and again! It was an amazing dance to witness and be a part of, and it gives people a chance to see every band, in case they couldn’t make any other show. Brilliant and also absurd. We love the 15 minute power set, however. It’s kind of an art to itself. Personally, we decided to have no repeats, which worked out pretty well for us, however, other bands crafted the perfect synopsis of their full set and ran with it for all three shows. Either way, it was a super fun experience on our end.
Now, after every night of gigs, all the musicians would end up back at the Festival Club, generally between 10 and 2 am, depending on where on the Shetlands that night’s gig took place. The Festival Club then turned into basically a condensed version of a fiddler’s convention (though it was mostly celtic jams). Every staircase and empty room contained a jam or two, and there was a busy busy bar and bottles being passed every direction. It was great to get to pick with many of the players we were watching perform. As old time players, we generated a fair amount of interest. One stark difference is the length for which we play a song. Generally, a Scottish or Irish jam consists of sets of 3 or 4 tunes, each played 2 or 3 times through. This definitely keeps the flow going, but for those of us who don’t know the tune, it can be kind of vexing – as soon as you begin to grasp the structure and notes of one tune, they’re off to the next, often in a different key and time signature (especially challenging for us 5-string banjo-ers). By contrast, as many of you know, an old-time tune goes until you can see through time, giving all participants plenty of time to learn, forget, and relearn the tune.
The long story short of it is that the schedule for the Shetland Festival participants runs as follows:
- 4pm – assemble and load up to get to a venue early for sound check, etc
- 8pm – 12am – gig featuring 40 minute sets form 5 different bands
- 1:30am – arrive at festival club, begin general carousal
- 5am – Festival Club closes, at which point you can either
- A) head to the Harbor Cafe for a greasy full Scottish breakfast, or
- B) head to an after party for more carousing before then arriving at A)
- Anywhere between 7am to never – go to sleep
- 3:30pm – stumble into Festival Club for coffee, and repeat.
This is a schedule that guarantees an increasing level of manic behavior and general hilarity. As the days went on, you could see a kind of feral quality creeping into all the musician’s eyes as we transformed from normal humans into sleepless party zombies. Lurching from bar to jam to venue to bar, feasting on all content that lay in our pathways. All of our Galax pals should be very familiar with this schedule. Personally, I haven’t seen so many dawns in quite some time. And, of course, interspersed with the music is all of the talking. Perhaps one of the things I love most about being a musician, and specifically a touring musician, is the fast friendships that can be achieved amongst you and your fellow road-weary comrades. Maybe it’s the shared experiences, maybe it’s some genetic component, maybe it’s booze. Whatever, we made some friends at this fest who are the kind of folks that we may not see for another 18 months, but with whom the rapport will remain fresh when next we meet.
It’s worth, at this point, singling out two folks with whom we had an especially great time – Tim and Una. Tim is one of these aforementioned road pals we first met in 2008 at the Famous Spielgeltent in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He is possibly one of the best soundmen we’ve ever gotten to work with, and also a hilarious, erudite, and almost superhumanly positive person. He is also a talented fiddler and multi-instrumentalist with some great bands. We ran into him while boarding the ferry, and it was a great pleasure to reconnect and socialize with him. Tim had, as his assistant, a woman named Una from Belfast who proved to be equally fascinating in different ways. An astrophysicist, an acoustic music engineer, a squeeze boxer and harpist, and a grade-A shit-talker to boot. Combined, Tim and Una were a fabulous mobile sound team and a great duo with whom to kick it.
What else . . . I feel like I have to expel all of this from my brain before it disappears forever like a recent dream. If you’re curious, this is my current position in life.
Ah, I feel I must amend previous statements that I’ve made concerning the full Scottish/English/Irish breakfast. If you need a refresher, it’s:
- Baked Beans
- Tattie Scone/Potato Cake
- sometimes sauteed mushrooms
- sometimes a baked tomato
- black pudding/haggis
- and, in the case of the Shetland Islands, the newest edition to our meat obsession
This is a breakfast designed for the hard working laborer, not the slothful musician. But see, I’ve been thinking about it all wrong. For us laypeople, the full breakfast isn’t designed to be eaten upon waking in the morning, it’s designed to be eaten before going to bed in the morning. Two days in a row I stumbled with companions to the Harbor Cafe for breakfast and ate a week’s worth of salt, protein, grease and beans, then promptly walked to the lodging and passed out, more from exhaustion than any alcohol fueled blackout. And, each afternoon, I awoke refreshed, nay, powerful, all thanks to a meal that no sane person should ever consider eating. The scene on Tuesday morning, following the Final Fling on Monday night, was especially lively. The place was queued out the door with revelers, loudly cheering and hooting each time someone else’s number was called to pick up their breakfast (two exhausted and somewhat terrified women were cooking for this horde of famished and bleary Visigoths, and to them we extend the heartiest thanks imaginable). We were picking tunes in line and acting up in every way imaginable. I was number 83. When 84 was called before me, I began loudly lamenting the lack of proper counting and was shouted down with a hearty “in your face, 83! That’s the luck of the draw!” Which had us all cracking up. Maybe you had to be there . . .
Shetland Phrases that we learned:
- Greth – “A piss,” i.e. getting drunk.
- Muckle – big; as in, “I had a muckle greth last night! Oh my head!”
- Peerie – small
- Ett a yun – eat up!
- Tooms – thumbs
And now we are traveling home: a somewhat harrowing ferry ride through a Force 8 gale, a flight from Aberdeen to Heathrow, and now we are somewhere over the Atlantic. It’s amazing how 6 days can seem like 100 years. Sometimes quality time whizzes past, but in this case, we were able to soak up every moment in its fullest, and we can only hope that we get the opportunity to return again.
Oh, wait, how could I forget. ED AND GRAHAM RODE PONIES!! Followers of our FaceSpace page may know that we were seeing ponies. In fact, there were two ponies (named Disney and Rover, we came to find out) that we walked past daily. Anyway, on one of his morning walks home, Ed was able to befriend and hop onto Rover, the brown one. He later regaled us with this tale, and was, of course, not believed in the slightest. However, Graham then reenacted the moment and got photographic evidence to back his claim! Never let it be said that we are not wild adventurers, folks. We have the Viking blood, coursing through our besotted and greasy veins. Is that the second time I said “besotted?” Well, there’s probably a reason for that.
Other moments/thoughts of note:
- Ed swapped clothing with Lisa, one of the festival organizers, somewhat late in the night on Saturday. This led to him wearing a full out bridesmaid gown on stage during the Final Fling
- During that same Final Fling, we were lucky enough to have the closing slot, which we used to get super weird. We also sang Peaches (which many staff told me was the “Song of the Festival”) and had many folks singing along. Additionally, we were able to get J.P. Cormier to rip up some mandolin with us, Bill Elliot to do the same on guitar, and, a special treat, Mike Elliot playing honkytonk piano for a number of tunes. We were also joined by our new Belgian pal Michelle on ancillary percussion duties, and Gary from ManRan on accordion.
- Hey, did you know that the Shetlands are fucking georgeous? Sure, it may be an acquired taste – wind-burnt hills and rocky cliffs, snow showers in May, foreboding seas, etc, but we definitely acquired that taste for it.
- Big thanks and love go out to all of the festival staff: Davie, Mhari, Lisa, Shirley, Eddie, Stephen, Kristie, and the myriad of names I can’t conjure in my current travel-addled mindstate.
That’s probably enough. If anything else springs into my consciousness, I’ll be sure to include it. For now, I’ll just reiterate how much fun we had and how flattered we felt to be chosen for this opportunity, and to be received in the manner that we were.
Next time . . . we’ll ride a puffin!