Gambetta & Crary: On the Road (April 28, 2002)

The last scheduled thing you do at the Shetlands Folk Festival is hang out very close to a bar and listen to music. It’s also the first thing you do. Also the middle, the early-middle, late-middle, and…. Well, you get the idea. On the very last night the festival folks throw a bit of a party for those who performed, those who helped, and those who played other roles in the massive series of events here this past weekend.

Some of the best music Gambetta and Crary heard this weekend was during some jam sessions that last evening in the Lerwick community Hall. Everywhere in the hall that night different genre of musicians found each other and wound up in sessions. In one of these, a bunch of young people (some very young) were gathered around an upright piano playing fiddles and jamming out Shetland trad tunes. It’s the most impressive gathering of young people playing traditional music we’d ever seen, and Beppe wound up in the middle.

Not only did Senor play guitar with this group of fiddlers, but also he got them to teach him a tune’r two, and for one unpredictable moment, there was Gambetta, actually playing somebody’s fiddle. Well, it wasn’t good enough to take on the road, and the intonation was a little shaky, but his connection to the tradition was virtuoso.

Meanwhile, on the ground floor in a corner of a closed café, Crary was jamming it down, not only with fellow Yank Al Perkins, the steel guitar and Dobro ace, but also with a growing gathering of great local players. But the highlight was the singing of local Shetland woman-with-great-pipes Sheila Henderson. It’s been about three years since I did some gigs with Sheila, and if it’s possible, she’s singing even better than three years ago. This is major stuff, and we were aware we had heard the best singing of the festival, no make that the year, after Sheila had belted some classics. Holy Mackerel, as they say in Shetland (and Kansas), this was good.

Next day we made our departure on the ferry, and many of the Shetlanders saw us off at the docks. Presumably this was not to make sure we left, but instead as a nice bon voyage, which was continued by some of the folks who drove to a hillside street and blew car horns and waved as we sailed past the city. Nice people here… even after having us hanging out in their homes for a week, they still act like they like us.

‘Got one more comment on the Shetlands: the festival is intended to further the effort they’ve (successfully) mounted to foster their own musical tradition, a tradition which was nearly lost, I’m told. What’s interesting about this is that the Shetland folks seem to recognize that in the right environment different traditions can thrive on the friendly competition of bumping up against each other, or to be more precise, of listening to each other. So the festival brings in a very wide variety of music, including Gambetta and Crary, and sends the whole package (including Gambetta & Crary) out to remote communities in the islands, where the local tradition gets, er, invaded, for want of a better word. .

In my country, we pursue the folly of “purifying” a tradition by sanitizing it, boxing it up in exclusivistic environments, and attempting with great futility to prevent its “contamination” by other influences. Here, they’ve done the opposite: they promote the vitality of their traditional music by annually throwing it into the mix of a great festival, and letting it sink or swim. And of course it works; Shetland music certainly “swims,” and the real deal happens: the tradition is stronger for its exposure to such alien counterparts as hairy-armed flatpickers and others. So our hats are off to these enlightened souls who plan this event and who understand music, not just their own scene. Just goes to show: it’s not enough to have virtuosos on the stage, you need a couple back in the office as well.