If nothing else, listening to folk music is educational. How many pub quizzers would find their knowledge enhanced by being a folk fan? Take ’bere’ for example - a six row barley unique to Orkney with its roots sprouting from 8th-century Vikings.
It’s also the latest album from Saltfishforty: the partnership of Brian Cromarty and Douglas Montgomery, who bring their fiddle/viola and guitar/mandola combination back to basics on their fifth album.
A round dozen of tunes and songs recorded swiftly over two days capture a freshness and live feel - very much how musicians are wont to record these days, just one step from the concert/session performance.
Bere - the album - provides a diversity which brings a Scots flavour with a Scandinavian twist, Orkney providing the junction at which the music meets and takes off on a new course. It’s traditional at heart yet mixed with musical influences aplenty from jazz to swing to blues, and as an added bonus the press release even comes with a recipe for Orkney Bere Bannocks.
With the scales tipping slightly towards the tune sets over songs, the opening four reels in Whisky and the three Montgomery compositions that make up Mad, including a tribute to a great grand uncle in The Battle Of Passchendale, set the feet a-tapping.
The Picky set sees the mandolin taking the lead to make mincemeat of some Irish jigs, while Birds allows the strings to do similar with an insistent percussive guitar providing the foundation for three original Cromarty tunes. If there’s a pause point, the confession that “we love a bit of swing” before the pair swing out on Swing, might add the variety yet it does feel slightly out of place.
Alongside the tunes are scattered a handful of songs with Brian Cromarty’s vaguely Kris Drever inflections revealing a few little gems hidden amidst the track sequencing. In particular, Tender is a sensitively arranged version of Luedecke’s Tender Is The Night and, along with Woe (“a beautifully depressing song”), they provide a pair where the sentiment is strong and the fast flying fingers rein themselves in .
A couple of the songs induce a few chills as Odin tells the tale of vandalism of the Odin Stone whilst the intrigue of The Snipe records the deathbed confession on the fate of the Orkney schooner Jack Snipe and her crew over a century ago.
Little gems indeed, and possibly a few that will emerge as highlights of the album. It’s a set from a duo whose return to their core set up sees them continuing to chart a course in establishing themselves as key figures in the Scots scene and in flying the flag for Orkney heritage.Mike Ainscoe
Released on 21 April 2017. Recorded, mixed and mastered at Castlesound Studios by Stuart Hamilton.
8. The Snipe