Thursday 2nd May 2019 - Day 1
The countdown is over - and so it begins: welcome, one and all, to the last hurrah of the Shetland Folk Festival's thirties, before next year's big four-oh celebrations. We hope you're all stocked up on your sleep, and ready/raring for one of the world's most legendary musical sprees.
For visitors to any island festival, there's an extra sense of leaving real life/the rest of the world behind, further enhanced in Shetland’s case by the length of the sea crossing, plus the rich distinctiveness of the place and its culture. Amid the haar-y murk shrouding Aberdeen as the Hjaltland left harbour on Wednesday night, however, carrying its customary annual boatload of visiting artists and music-lovers northward, any and all visible sign of where we'd left had vanished within ten minutes: sign of an especially otherworldly weekend to come, perhaps? It certainly presaged a night of fine tunes onboard, in both the cafe and bar - and the equally customary clutch of pale faces and sore heads upon disembarking at 7.30am.
Normal life was fully suspended as far back as Tuesday for much of the festival's organising committee, when they boarded the boat south to go and meet the musicians converging from far and wide on Aberdeen the next day (with perhaps just a peerie spot of shopping in between).
Once the ferry arrives on Thursday, it's then full steam ahead with all the myriad macro- and micro-level logistics of which Da Committee are in charge for the next few days, to ensure your listening pleasure. Not only performers, but most of the necessary PA gear and crew come up on the boat, to be divided between trucks and dispatched to an islands-wide total of 14 different venues over the duration – starting with the crazy feat of rigging the Festival Club in time for 13 different acts to perform one number each come lunchtime, creating the traditional tasting-menu of the Opening Concert.
From the big load-in at Clickimin to the minutiae of transport schedules for those musicians playing more than one show in a day, or timetabling umpteen to ensure everyone gets a chance to eat, this is one big and complicated organisational machine – and that's before you even get to Sunday's Foys.
Far from ideal, then, as all this kicked off good and proper on Thursday morning, that one committee member found herself stuck in a malfunctioning lift at Islesburgh – but thankfully rescue was fairly swift.
The online fanfare and excitement attending the festival’s start elicited some sharp pangs of nostalgia from past visiting artists. Following Da Committee’s announcement last night that we’d set sail, both ex-Poozie Sally Barker and The Wilders’ Betse Ellis fondly recalled their own maiden Aberdeen-Lerwick voyages, two decades apart in 1991 and 2011, both having evidently been following the festival ever since.
Having arrived a day early to broadcast last night’s weekly Travelling Folk show from 60º north, presenter Bruce MacGregor (who from tomorrow dons his Blazin’ Fiddles hat, as the band make their SFF debut) reminisced in turn about his own first visit 23 years ago, as a young whippersnapper with Eat the Donkey. This somewhat ingloriously-named combo also featured fresher-faced versions of ex-Blazers guitarist Marc Clement and Shetland’s own Kevin Henderson – the last of whom seemingly still has photos somewhere. . . Bruce’s post then prompted Loudon Temple, of leading Americana agents Brookfield Knights, to reply, “wish I was there too - we get hearts aglow every time we think of the place and the warmth of the welcome!”
Bruce’s heart was also aglow at the thought of reuniting with fellow Invernesians Peter and Caroline McKenzie, now of Scalloway Hotel fame, and his prospective folk festival hosts. (Well, we’re sure #PrayforBruce can broadly be interpreted as ‘aglow’.)
Still available on iPlayer, incidentally, last night’s Travelling Folk features performances by local musical heroes Lewie Peterson, Ryan Couper and Callum Watt, plus visiting US singer-songwriter May Erlewine, tipped to be one of this year’s most popular discoveries. Next week’s programme is also a Shetland festival special, including interviews and sessions from more featured artists: a chance perhaps to relive some magic moments, which as yet are still to unfold.