2019 Folk Festival: Another Great Line-Up
by Alastair Hamilton -
The organisers of the Shetland Folk Festival have announced the list of visiting performers for what will be the 39th annual celebration of Shetland’s place in the world of traditional music; and it’s as impressive as ever. If you’d like to be part of it, the main message is that you need to be organised, because tickets are always in great demand: more about that in a moment.
Shetland is renowned for its contribution to folk music; there are strong echoes of Celtic and Nordic traditions, but the sound is unique to the islands. It’s very much fiddle-based: convenient, because Shetland merchant seafarers and fishermen were able to take their instruments with them on their travels.
That strong indigenous tradition, combined with an outward-looking worldview, is very much at the heart of the folk festival. It’s also clear that the playing of music has opened many musical doors, so that the islands have nurtured musicians in genres from classical to jazz and rock.
In early May, the focus is certainly on traditional music, but – as in previous years – the selection on offer is eclectic. The visiting musicians, from more than ten countries, combine new and upcoming acts with some familiar favourites and legendary guests from previous years.
Two of those returning legends are the talented multi- instrumentalists, JP Cormier (from Cape Breton in Canada) and Tim Edey (from the UK). Both have been recipients of great acclaim and countless awards in their careers. This will be Cormier’s fourth visit. Edey, also a firm Shetland favourite, has won BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards since last playing here. They’ll be performing both together and solo at various points over the weekend.
Other returning favourites from previous years include Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra and Scottish indie-trad stars, Elephant Sessions who last appeared in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Both band have scooped up various awards with The Tea Pads recognised as ‘UK Americana Band of the Year’ with their combination of western swing, gypsy jazz, hokum blues, ragtime, cajun and country roots. Elephant Sessions awarded were ‘Best Live Act’ and ‘Album of the Year’ at the Scottish Trad Awards with their blistering and spree-inducing take on Highland folk music.
This year’s festival also features a Highlands and Islands supergroup, Blazin’ Fiddles, who’ve been on the road for more than 20 years. Their line-up – individually, no strangers to Shetland – includes founding member, Bruce Macgregor, Shetland’s Jenna Reid and Orkney’s Kristan Harvey).
Other treats include Josie Duncan (Isle of Lewis) & Pablo Lafuente (Spain), who picked up a Radio 2 Young Folk award in 2017 and are known for contemporary and traditional Scots and Gaelic songs. They will be taking an extended line-up with them for Shetland (including former Young Trad winner, Charlie Stewart on strings and acclaimed percussionist, Signy Jakobsdottir). Glasgow-based Kinnaris Quintet are regarded as one of the most invigorating bands to come out of the Trad scene for many years with a dynamic sound flavoured by Celtic, Scandinavian, American and classical influences. Jenn Butterworth & Laura Beth Salter from the quintet will also perform as a duo with mandolin and guitar-led tunes and heart-rending songs and melodies.
The Shetland Folk Festival has always looked across the Atlantic for some of its music and Canada features very strongly this year. As well as J P Cormier, we’ll welcome Juno award winning duo, Pharis and Jason Romer, who’ll seduce audiences with beautiful harmonies and old-time tunes. Hailing from British Columbia, Pharis earned the title of ‘Traditional Singer of the Year’ at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, and the duo were named ‘Vocal Group of the Year’.
A French-Canadian trio, Bon Débarras, will bring us foor-stomping Quebecois tunes and songs with a twist. And Montreal’s Kaia Kater made a big impression last year at the Cambridge Folk Festival and Glasgow’s Celtic Connections.
From the USA comes singer-songwriter, May Erlewine, who’s on the bill at this year’s Celtic Connections. Known as the ‘Michigan Songbird’ in her home, she is strongly influenced by country, folk roots, old time country swing, soul and rock and rol
Back on this side of the pond, Northern Ireland’s five-piece Connla, hailing from Armagh and Derry, are another band to look out for with their own brand of contemporary and traditional tunes. They were crowned ‘Best New Group’ in the Live Ireland Awards in 2016, and also carried off the trophy for Best Vocal/Instrumental Album of the Year.
This year also features a strong presence from mainland Europe with legendary Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo bringing his trio to the Isles. Lorenzo is regarded as one of Europe’s virtuoso pipers and trades tunes and styles with a broad array of alternative music styles such as rock, pop, jazz, flamenco, chill-out and hip hop.
From France, Les Fils Canouche are making their UK debut bringing their strong gypsy-jazz and swing influence to Shetland combining bass clarinet, soaring accordion, wild rhythmic guitar and double bass with more than a passing nod to the legendary Django Reinhardt.
World music fans will enjoy the eclectic genre-spanning 5-piece, Kabantu, who feature members from across the UK and South Africa and with styles ranging from classical to samba (via Celtic reels) while UK based Bluegrass trio, Jaywalkers, are guaranteed to go down well with powerhouse bass, flame-fingered mandolin, blistering fiddle and three-part harmonies.
Alongside the visiting artists, over a hundred local musicians and dozens of local bands will also perform over the festival weekend, and they’ll be added to the final programme, due out in the next few weeks.
Festival Head of Programming, Mhari McLeman, is confident that this line-up will satisfy the Shetland audience: “Every year, we try and bring an eclectic and diverse range of styles and musicians up here and we hope festival goers like what they hear. While we pride ourselves on breaking brand new bands to Shetland audiences, it’s also lovely to see returning faces – and we also can’t wait to show off our local talent alongside these celebrated international acts.”
With the festival soon coming into its 5th decade and as popular as ever, the committee are confident of keeping up a high quality line-up in future years despite continuing cuts in public funding and the uncertainty that Brexit is bringing to all festivals across the UK.
Mhari adds: “Like many other organisations who are working with international artists, we will need to keep an eye on the current political situation and what the implications will be for the movement of musicians and the strength of the pound; all of this has a bearing on what we can bring to Shetland. However, we are grateful to all our volunteers, sponsors and committee members who continue to work together to make the event what it is.”
Indeed, one of the things that stands out about the Shetland event is that, despite its scale, it continues to be run entirely by volunteers, and those volunteers play many roles, from serving on the committee to offering bed and breakfast to visiting performers or selling raffle tickets at concerts. Another feature of the event is that concerts take place not just in one venue, but in community halls right across the islands, which of course involves many more volunteers who manage those halls. The folk festival is an excellent example of the community spirit that fuels so much of life in the islands.
The festival runs from 2nd - 5th May 2019 and the sale of early festival membership opens on 1st February, continuing until the end of that month only. Tickets become available to those early members from 18th March. General sale of remaining tickets (and further sale of memberships) begins on 1st April. If you’re keen to have the widest possible choice of concerts, it makes sense to secure early membership; some of the most popular concerts do sell out very quickly.
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