Celtic Connections: Väsen / Jenna Reid

Strathclyde Suite, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 26 January 2008

BARRY GORDON enjoys a entertaining double bill from Sweden and Shetland SWEDEN. Famous for its Vikings and limited amount of sunlight during the shivering winter months, our Scandinavian cousins have given us a lot more than just Abba, blond hair and Henrik Larsson. Like trad music innovators, Väsen, for instance. The Swedish trio might bestow a name that sounds like something bought from IKEA you put flowers in, but they also sound like one of the best folk acts in the world today. Before them, though, Jenna Reid proved she’s more than just a pretty face, endearing herself to the audience with a succinct set of Shetland ballads and frisky folk workouts. The young Shetland fiddler (nominated for “Best Instrumentalist” at last year’s Scots Trad Music Awards) has been writing quality tunes longer than the MV Hjaltland Lerwick-to-Aberdeen ferry has been in service, and on this brief outing, applied a more classical approach to her traditional numbers.

The title track from her most recent album, The Laughing Girl – three wonderfully contrasting ditties – was an obvious standout, former teacher and proud mum, Joyce, willing her on from within the crowd. However, it was an instrumental duet with sister, Bethany on piano – a poignant tune dedicated to the memory of her grandparents Willie and Eileen – that really tugged at the heartstrings as well as ears.

An encore was the least this lassie from Quarff deserved.

Väsen, on the other hand, are an altogether different proposition. Telepathic to the point where they could probably predict what’s behind Zener cards, the Nordic trio’s skill in simultaneously stopping and starting at the same time left some scratching their heads as well as their chins.

The band’s fixation with polkas and the 3/4-time signature dominated their set, Roger Tallroth’s heavily syncopated guitar notes a funky contrast to Marin’s classical style viola, and Johansson’s utterly compelling nyckelharpa playing. Granted, the majority of the tunes may have come from the 1700s, but in Väsen’s capable hands, they sounded as if they had been penned at 17.00 hours the previous day.

An indirectly humorous bunch, too, the trio punctuated the evening’s more so-called serious music with elements from movie theme tunes; a bizarre story about some Vasen fans from Bloomington, Indiana, who are trying to have a street named after the band; plus some slapstick comedy directed at various band members’ bodily functions (scratching the viola in the wrong place can serve up all kinds of embarrassment).

A rare ability to fade out a song as if on an LP was executed to pin-dropping effect. However, what dazzled the most was the band’s skill in shifting dynamics – often, and quickly – whenever the mood took them.

Overall then, a great night’s entertainment from two sharp-contrasting outfits. While Jenna Reid upheld the traditional Scottish music flag with meticulous dexterity, it was with welcome arms that we greeted yet another fabulous Swedish import. To see both on the same stage again would be a rare treat indeed.

© Barry Gordon, 2008