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Spencie’s Tunes Vol 5

Review by Alex Monaghan for Folkworld magazine.

STEVEN SPENCE – Spencie’s Tunes 5
Published by Steven Spence 2014, no ISBN: www.spenciestunes.com
76 pages softbound £10, CD also available

Shetland fiddler Steven Spence must have well over 200 compositions to his name by now. Here are thirty-five of his recent creations, plus one by accordionist Grant Crawford. They range from modern reels to old-time waltzes, with a typical Shetland mix of ceilidh music, Scots and American fiddling, and those magical tunes which, like the trowies, just seem to pop out of the ground in Shetland. Steven is from Unst, on the northern tip of the archipelago, and while some of his music is inspired by that island, many more of the pieces here sprang from special commissions. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, departures, and even charity auctions have spawned these melodies, often with precise instructions: a slow waltz, a march, a quickstep for the Canadian Barndance. The book contains clear transcriptions of each composition on a full page. The facing page generally gives the background, and a photo related to the tune. No accompaniment or arrangement is noted, but there is an accompanying CD where Steven is joined by several friends on accordion, piano, bass, guitar and drums, giving a good idea of how to play and back each piece.

Not every tune here appealed to me immediately, but after a couple of listens most of them won me over. The range of styles and moods here is enormous, from the beautiful simplicity of A Pig’s Trot to the bluegrass virtuosity of Isles Boy Meets City Girl (which incidentally is the only point I found where the performance on the CD doesn’t quite follow the dots). A Jig for Hamish is a modern Scots piece with both rhythm and lyricism. Da Alma Wedding Reel is one of several with a backwoods feel, while Terry’s Tune is unmistakably Shetland fiddle music. Being Bad in the Harcus Barn could be a James Hill hornpipe: it’s even written in Bb, a favourite 19th century key! Peerie Ertie’s 18th Reel was one of my instant favourites, very Shetland again, especially compared to the almost Irish sound of A Reel for Doreen. I’m guessing most of the titles were not chosen by Spencie, and it’s clear from the text that he’s matched the tunes perfectly to the recipients in many cases. With a preference for waltzes and reels, and a range of keys from A to Bb with most in G, this collection should suit most traditional musicians. The final page of Spencie’s Tunes 5 presents Grant Crawford’s Compliments to Steven Spence, a composition for Spencie from another fine composer, a good going contemporary reel well worth learning.

Alex Monaghan


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Spencie’s Tunes Vol 5 (review in Shetland Times)

Great review of Spencie’s Tunes Vol 5 in The Shetland Times by Stephen Gordon.

review 2

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The Shetland Times – 2008

Spencie’s Tunes Vol 2

Talented trio make Spencie’s new tunes top drawer musical outing

I HAVE never come across a musician offering to compose a tune tailored to your whim in return for a modest wad of green- backs, but for Unst fiddler Steven Spence it’s surely his way of digging out and nailing down those bits of tunes that buzz around inside his head.

I’m not saying he’s in it for the money because you’d scarcely get your car serviced for the price of one of his compositions and his creation is yours for life and even afterwards, unlike the Yaris quietly rotting away at your front door.

It’s the musical equivalent of commissioning an artist to paint a portrait. Scottish traditional music has a rich history of tunes inspired by characters who crossed the composer’s path so Steven has only slightly short-circuited and commercialised that approach.

There’s nothing vain or egotistical about those whom his tunes are written for though because they are usually created as gifts, for weddings, anniversaries and for loved ones or favourite places. On occasion they are in tribute to an absent friend.

Taken together with the potted stories behind the tunes, the scores in the book with their mix of photos and some great cartoons by Frank Renwick, Spencie’s Tunes Vol 2 represents a rich social and cultural record of early 21st century life in the North Isles.

But are the tunes any good or simply music-by-numbers churned off the Spencie conveyor belt?

Well, considering Steven wrote Sylvia, one of the most memorable tunes in Shetland ever, when he was just 14 (I still whistle it all the time) and added the fizz to Hom Bru in their 1980s vintage, he certainly has the required pedigree. The playing dried up for a few years after he quit the band in 1993 but he got the bug again in 2004, bouncing back with the first Spencie’s Tunes which brought together his rich back catalogue of tunes from 30 years along with a book, intended as a teaching aid.

Spencie’s Tunes 2 fast tunes are dispensed with his trademark vim and vigour and the backing throughout is alive and rootsy.

Steven is famed for his energy and the addictive secret ingredient he sprinkles on tunes, called “lift”. He often gives the impression of being in a hurry and he certainly doesn’t stretch his music by dragging behind the beat – he’s always somewhere up ahead. He’s not one given to the over-wrought melancholic tear-jerker either so there are no slow airs to be found on this collection.

Steven told me they had put “contemporary” backing on some of the tunes which conjured a vision of electronic break-beats but there’s nothing too kooky that would scare off the traditional purists. Instead it blesses the album with a variety of textures – something many traditional fiddle albums fail to do, which can make the listening experience something of an endurance test.

Steven’s right hand man Jonathan Ritch is an outstanding musician in whatever field he turns his hand to: rock guitar, Beatles a cappella singing or bass guitar with Fiddler’s Bid and Shoormal. He’s a discerning knob-twiddler in the studio too although for my tastes he should have tweaked his acoustic guitar a bit higher in the mix rather than relegating it almost to the role of percussion in the background at times where you hear the strings rhythmically strummed but not the sound of the chords.

The other main accompanist, the multi-talented Alice Mullay, is a Bigton lass who has shown great taste by choosing to live in Unst, Spencie’s “island above all others”. Her occasional flute-playing is tasteful and well-judged while her electronic piano can be quite powerful, allowing a tune to swell up in a way that reminds me of a Canadian fiddle colossus like Barrage or our own supergroup Fiddlers’ Bid. On tracks like the Prue Reel set she lays a solid rolling bed of sound for the fiddle to skip along on top of.

So, the musicianship is top drawer; are the tunes exceptional? Thirty-six in under 48 minutes is fairly jamming them in and possibly by packing so many short tunes into sets Steven denies himself the chance to cut loose and fly off in whimsical directions with more creative arrangements, a chance he does allow himself on the evocative waltz Hildonna’s Farewell after Alice’s lush piano intro carries us nearly two minutes in before Steven lays the first note on top.

Golden Goals at Da Gibby does not suggest a very inspiring tune, written for Shetland’s gold medal-winning Island Games football boys, but it turns out to be a top tune, coming on like a brooding Fiddler’s Bid/Rock, Salt & Nails epic before morphing into Calum Risk’s Bernadette’s Reel, which would sound good on accordion. In the album’s first set the tune Sandy Macaulay could also emerge as a Spencie great.

Some of the tunes are hot off the composer’s bow, like the outstanding Mr & Mrs Philip Goodlad’s Hegri Jig, written for the ex-BBC Radio Shetland presenter’s wedding in October. It is quirky and less conventional than most of the other offerings with Steven sliding his finger up the neck to echo the familiar Radio Shetland signature tune, displaying a slightly more flashy and acrobatic side than is found elsewhere on the album. That could be my favourite track some days but another highlight has to be the neat waltz Mavis Anne with its lovely flute harmony and if push comes to shove it takes my top prize.

As for classic tunes the stature of Sylvia, at this early stage of listening I don’t hear a clear contender but it will be interesting to see which his fellow fiddlers pick out to learn or record on their own albums in future.

Characteristically, Steven is already battering onwards and has enough tunes from previous commissions to fill another album for this time next year when we will again get to see if greatness has flowed from his flying bow. Here’s hoping for a couple of duets or more lovely string and woodwind harmonies.

John Robertson

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i’i Magazine Feature

Feature in i'i Shetland magazine - View as pdf (4mb)

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Shetland Music

Hailing from Shetland’s most northerly island of Unst Steven is without a shadow of a doubt one of Shetland’s most exciting fiddlers and one of its most prolific and talented composers, especially in the field of writing tunes for people who mean a great deal to him.

Steven Spence

A huge influence on an embryonic ‘Fiddlers’ Bid’ in the late 80’s and early 90’s (who still record and perform a number of his tunes) Steven was an early member of Hom Bru, leaving Shetland to set up touring base camp with them in Edinburgh in the early 80’s.

After his return he performed more as an informal solo artist, again to great acclaim.

Then in the mid 1990’s Steven, for reasons best know to himself, decided to “give the fiddle a rest”. Sadly that ‘rest’ was to last until 2004 when once again he was bitten by the bug, releasing a new album ‘Spencie’s Tunes’, together with a music-book of self-penned tunes, his famous ‘Just Knackered’ T-shirts and even a locally brewed beer to celebrate the occasion. The beer was brewed by the Valhalla Brewery, run by his sister Sylvia and brother-in-law Sonny Priest on the northern-most Shetland island of Unst.

Launching these at the 2004 Shetland Folk Festival his ‘return’ was one of the musical highlights of the year and encouraged him to continue writing tunes and performing live, including an appearance on the Celtic Connections Open Stage in 2005.

Steven has now set up his own music business ‘Spencie’s Tunes’ on his home island of Unst (the furthest north of the Shetland Islands and thereby the furthest north island in the United Kingdom) which includes a tune writing service and cost effective music instrument retail sales.

Much is made of product ‘branding’ nowadays. However you view its merits one thing is for sure, if you see the name Steven Spence on a CD, or on the bill of a live concert, you can be guaranteed it will be a highly exciting experience of the very highest quality.

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Music of Spencie’s Shetland

Music of Spencie’s Shetland

By Jan Nary
31 Leybourne St, Chelmer Queensland 4068 Publicist & Journalist National Folk Festival Publicist

Music of Spencie’s Shetland, a scatter of bleakly beautiful islands in the North Sea, has produced more than its fair share of good music. Shetland music has its own distinctive flavour; not entirely Scandinavian, not quite Scottish but nestling somewhere between folk and traditional styles with a soupçon of something slightly jazzy.

The original Scandinavian music was brought to the Islands by Viking settlers in about 900AD and the music, like the language, retains the unmistakable lilt of its Nordic antecedents. Shetland, along with its southern sister Orkney, was handed over to the Scottish throne as a wedding dowry in the 16th Century and the influence “fae sooth” (from the south) began to filter in.

The “something slightly jazzy” could be largely attributed to the influence of “Peerie” (little) Willy Johnson, the elder statesman of contemporary Shetlandic music, who introduced elements of post- war American jazz into the traditional music that was being revived locally by the late Dr Tom Anderson.

Nobody knows Shetland’s music better then Peerie Willie, so when he recommended Stevie Spence as one of the Islands’ foremost musicians, a visit was imperative. Fiddle-player and composer, Stevie –or Spencie – lives in Unst, Shetland’s northernmost island. He has been playing music most of his life.

“I was born into a musical family,” he says “My grandfather and father both played the fiddle, so does my brother and both my sisters. From my mother”s side of the family, the legendary fiddler and composer Friedeman Stickle was my Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather. I started learning at school here in Unst when I was nine years old – that’s a few years ago now! Dr Tom Anderson, who was an icon in the music scene, used to go around the schools teaching fiddle and that’s how my music began.”

Steven played in the acclaimed Shetland band Hom Bru but put professional music aside to take on a home brew of a different style, working in the family’s “boutique beer” business, the Valhalla Brewery. Valhalla beers are noted for their consistent quality and distinctive flavours (I can personally vouch for both) and his job as a brewer kept Stevie out of the performing circuit for a while. As well, he works on the Island’s ferries, the hardy, sea- going toilers that keep these scattered communities linked together through hell and high water.

“It’s about ten years since I played with Hom Bru and I haven’t played a lot in public since then- but I have kept composing,” he says.

“I’ve written about fifty tunes and even though I wasn’t performing them, other bands were – even bands like Fiddlers’ Bid. My work was also being recorded by other groups, though I often didn’t know about it until someone showed me a CD with one my tunes on it.”

(A bit of prompting – there”s no skite in Shetland – elicits the information that many of Spencie”s tunes have won awards in competitions, including two in just the last month).

Steven’s tunes became increasingly popular and he was often approached by other players saying they’d like copies. The requests became so frequent that after years of urging from other musicians Spencie, with the enthusiastic assistance of the Shetland Arts Trust, produced Spencie’s Tunes, a CD and book of some of his compositions.

“I thought initially that I’d just publish a book of my songs so that anyone who wanted them could have them,” he says, displaying the generosity that is a trademark of these Island communities.

“Then I thought, how much better if I include some of the local stories, to give a feel of the place for people who may never have been to Shetland. So the book has a tune on one page and on the facing page there’s the story of how it came to be written, the people I wrote if for and photographs of them,” he says.

“It’s; hopefully it will be a nice thing to listen to and a lot of people will benefit from it. I’ve found it quite exciting – and I’m feeling the urge to get back on stage again!”

For local folk, the book and CD is an unofficial community diary of sorts; for the incomer (you, me and anyone else who’s lucky enough to visit this stronghold in the North Sea) it’s a privileged and welcoming insight into the sort of close and caring community that’s fast disappearing in the twenty-first century.

The tunes, a collection of jigs, reels, marches and waltzes includes pieces with such intriguing names as Pig’s Reel (written for Ivor Pottinger, another Hom Bru band member), Panic ida Tatties (inspired by the day the potato- digging tractor – and workers – bogged in the mud); Rayburn Reel (in memory of a solid fuel stove that blew up) and – an eerie one this – White Wife.

Spencie has had a Close Encounter of the First Kind with the White Wife, a local ghost who has given her name to one of Valhalla’s most popular brews. She was wont to appear, briefly but terrifyingly, on the seat next to cart drivers in the days of horse- drawn transport. After the advent of cars to the Island she took to appearing in the passenger’s seat of passing cars on the stretch of road that is her territory and she once settled in with Steven, driving home one night. He swears that he was stone cold sober at the time.

“There was a light at the side of the car and when I looked there she was, in the passenger’s seat, smiling at me. Beautiful eyes but terribly rotten teeth. I blinked and looked again – and she was gone. Just like that. It’s an interesting place,” he says, with typical Shetlandic understatement.

Since the launch of the CD Spencie has undertaken a successful tour of America and Canada, inspiring folk across the pond with a love of Shetland’s music, stories – and good ale. We can only hope that his next tour will take in Australia.

Jan Nary
31 Leybourne St, Chelmer Queensland 4068 Publicist & Journalist National Folk Festival Publicist
Co-host Acoustic Harvest Bay FM 100.3
tel. +61 7 3379 4178
fax +61 7 3278 2360
mob. 0429 898 328
UK 07905 976 173

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Highland & Islands Enterprise

SEEKING a worldwide customer base, musician Steven Spence is bringing some good news to Unst.

A well-known and respected musician throughout, and beyond, Shetland he is building up his business, Spencie’s Tunes.

After composing tunes for friends over many years, Steven, helped by grant assistance of £2,000 from Shetland Enterprise last year, has set up a business writing commissioned tunes for customers across the globe. It compliments his other activities which include the publication of manuscripts and the sale of new fiddles.

Working with recording engineer Jonathan Ritch and music teacher Alice Mullay, Steven will compose a fiddle or accordion tune, and supply a framed manuscript together with a CD recording of the piece.

He started playing fiddle aged nine and won his first competition at 13, going on to win many more and play with a string of popular bands.

His tunes have won numerous composition awards with his work Uyea Isle opening the televised Hogmanay Show in Edinburgh.

Steven”s versatility has always attracted folk to ask him to compose special tunes for occasions such as weddings or anniversaries, and it became obvious that there was a ready market developing for this unique product.

He said: “We have identified two main markets, private individuals wanting an unusual gift to commemorate a special event, and commercial or public agency clients looking for tunes for promotional reasons.”

He said: “If I’ m asked to compose a tune, I like to talk to the client and get an idea of the personality of the person it’s for, or find out about the event so that I can reflect relevant features in the music.”

It is hoped that in addition to the domestic market, Spencie’s Tunes will meet a demand from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America.

Steven is also broadening his business activities by marketing fiddles, with his own brand, on the internet at www.spenciestunes.com.

Shetland Enterprise project officer Katrina Wiseman said: “Spencie’s Tunes has shown that businesses can be operated effectively from remote rural locations.

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The Shetland Times – 2004

The Shetland Times

By John Robertson “The Shetland Times” on 30 April 2004

FOR many who learned to scrape out a tune in the early days of the official Shetland fiddle revival it was like being sent off for military square-bashing. But without the fun. Then beyond the classroom there were those concerts where po-faced players did their duty as po-faced punters scowled on.

Of course it was all about pulling a tradition from the edge of its grave, a noble mission for sure. But trying to preserve it emotionless in a fusty old Victorian straightjacket was doomed to kill it off anyway sooner or later. Thankfully the young ones came through it and long ago kicked over the traces to remind us it’s all about everything that regimentation is not: expression, agility, flair, venom, fragility, fun, tenderness, sex – yes, even sex.

Ok girls, that bring us round to our world-conquerors Fiddlers’ Bid. But from whom did they borrow their hurricane delivery, juice-generating stagecraft and indeed a few neat tunes too? Step forward the forgotten man of fiery fiddle, Steven Spence of Unst, as he breaks cover with his first “solo” album for 22 years.

Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when he fronted local folk kings Hom Bru, the Bid boys were looking on in their short trousers. From Steven’s hell-for-leather delivery they learnt of the devilish trick they call “lift”. The showmanship looked pretty good too and, having seen the future of Shetland traditional fiddle they were soon making it all their own.

For Steven though, 10 gruelling years in the eye of the hard-gigging Hom Bru storm proved more than enough. In 1993 he headed home to his beloved Unst and has hardly handled his bow since, preferring instead the laid-back pleasures of banging a bass in the shadows with wobbly Unst rock ‘n’ rollers Da Bonxies.

Now he’s back in a blizzard of rosin on a new-found mission to keep music-making fun, hopefully spreading fiddle fever to another generation seeking that all-important inspiration.

“I’m gotten the bug again,” he said this week, and who knows where that will lead.

Funnily enough it’s exactly five years since one of Steven’s old fiddling partners in Garster’s Dream Band, the wonderful Debbie Scott, bounced back after her decade in the musical wilderness with a ground-breaking Shetland fiddle album which she launched at the folk festival. Perhaps Trevor Hunter, Steven’s old fiddle teacher, will be next to return to the limelight? But I digress.

Steven is breaking some new ground with his album, Spencie’s Tunes, too. But rather than recording a cutting-edge taster of 21st century Steven Spence, he has chosen to bring together the best of the 40 or more tunes he has written over nearly 30 years. Working closely with Unst former music teacher John Laughland, who arranged the tunes and provided tight accompaniment on electronic piano, he has set out his archive for posterity. Perhaps it will clear the decks for a new phase of creativity.

At first listen many may feel he has sacrificed a slice of his art for the sake of education by toning down his ferocious playing style a notch or two, even keeping the brakes on during sets of reels where he would naturally be inclined to go into orbit, although, having said that, the first set fairly cracks at, particularly George’s Reel for Steven’s young son. Sylvia & Sonny’s Wedding Reel set has a fair swagger to it too. The approach is very deliberate, he maintains, and definitely not an indication that he can’t cut it anymore. The recording is largely intended as a teaching aid, he said. Even one of the waltzes is slowed down to help learners grasp the sequence of notes.

If, like me, you’ve the memory of a lobotomised prawn, it should help solve the mystery of how real folk musicians store all those hundreds of closely related ligthning-fast fiddle tunes in their bonce.

With the motive being to teach, Steven’s novel approach to book and CD suddenly makes sense: an album and music book of the same tunes (although unfortunately not in the same order which will require some lightning page-turning if you are trying to follow a set of reels), played in an easy-to-decipher manner and packaged in a cartoon-style cover to dispense with any air of formality or fustiness.

The glossy book is lavishly illustrated with old photos and super cartoons of Unst and Yell characters ranting away in their dialect. The tunes are clearly transcribed and chord boxes are provided for guitar accompanists, which may be a first for a publication of traditional fiddle tunes. Both products carry the health warning “Spencie’s tunes can ruin your chances of being miserable”, so you are in no doubt as to his intentions. For the ultimate confirmation of this, check out the hidden track which is quite possibly the most shocking piece of recording ever put to tape. Never have so many well-oiled Unst vikings sounded so unlike a Welsh male voice choir.

In utter contrast is the delicate and moving rendition of Calum’s Waltz by the Sound School primary 6 bairns and their music teacher Genny Robertson. Calum Risk, who suffers from a rare condition, was able to participate fully on his own tune, leaving his individual stamp on the recording.

Along the way the album’s tunes and the tales behind them weave a vivid tapestry of rural Shetland culture over the past 30 years, immortalising Davie Henderson’s exploding Rayburn in the now-standard session tune Rayburn Reel, there is Radio Shetland, Steven’s tribute to the start of our first radio station in the 1970s, the bright and bouncy Da BO Lasses, dedicated to the Ulsta ferry booking girls (Steven works on the ferry), White Wife for sister Sylvia and brother-in-law Sonny’s Valhalla brew (Steven helps out at the brewery too) and the wonderfully named Panic Ida Tatties.

There is another tack to Steven’s album that makes it stand out a mile among Shetland recordings: it’s mainly a celebration of that crowning glory to our jagged string of isles, Unst, or “the island above all others”, as Steven puts it.

Over the years he has written tunes celebrating some of its magical places that I also cherished in my childhood, like Uyea Isle, where some of his ancestors came from; Lums o’ Lund for one of Unst’s great treasures at the Westing and the hidden tranquility of Woodwick is honoured in Nigel’s Stivla, a tune for a one-time playground sparring partner of mine Nigel Stickle.

The tunes are a roll-call of great Unst characters like various members of Gibby Gray’s family past and present, The Maundeville Waltz for Brian and Margaret Hunter, tunes for all Steven’s family and an oddly phrased one in tribute to Unst’s oldest resident, former nurse Mima Sutherland. It is true that the purists may wince as cheesy fake banjo breaks out of the keyboard for a quick spurt now and again, or the pretend accordion when his box-playing sister Sylvia might have been hauled in instead for more than just her single appearance, on the Scandinavian-flavoured Inga’s Waltz.

There are other Japanese plastic moments which, depending entirely on your taste, either detract from or enrich pretty tunes like Bonar & Mabel’s Golden Wedding. But I’ll leave you to discover them yourself. Of all his tunes, the one that still sticks out for me, and probably his least traditional, is Sylvia, the distinctive, rousing opening tune to one of Hom Bru’s albums. He wrote it when he was 14! Here’s hoping there’s a few more like that up his sleeve in the coming years. Great fiddlers, it seems, are never lost, they just get waylaid for a decade or so. Welcome back Steven and have a great weekend.

John Robertson

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Fiddlers’ Bid

Fiddlers’ Bid

Steven Spence, is from the island of Unst in Shetland. Unst’s music tradition is the source of many of Shetland’s most popular traditional tunes and names synonymous with Shetland traditional fiddle playing such as Stickle, Gray and Spence.

Steven started playing the fiddle as a young boy and continues a family tradition of fiddling. His father, Arthur teaches fiddle in Unst. Whilst at school Steven had fiddle lessons from the late Dr Tom Anderson and it was during this time at 11, that his talents as a composer began, with his first composition for his mother, which he called “Ruby’s Success”.

Steven is not only one of Shetland”s top fiddlers, he also plays guitar, bass and mandolin. At the age of seventeen he recorded his first album “Me and My Shadows”, playing all instruments. Recognition as one of Shetland’s top fiddlers certainly came whilst playing with internationally renowned Shetland folk band “Hom Bru” with whom he played for ten years.

It was during his time of playing with Hom Bru, that a few keen young fiddlers, now the band Fiddlers’ Bid, used to go to their gigs and were inspired by Steven’s high energy, driving style of playing. When Steven’s fiddle kicked into a set it provided an incredible lift that was infectious through the band and audience. Steven”s energy and rhythmic playing comes across in his compositions and tunes such as Pig’s Reel, Gibby Gray and the Rayburn Reel, all are now popular Shetland session tunes. Uyea Isle is always a favourite with Fiddlers’ Bid audiences.

Since his days in Hom Bru, Steven’s fiddle playing isn’t heard so much outside of Unst but his tunes have been recorded on dozens of albums and he has been a winner of no less than 8 tune competitions to date.

In the Hairst of last year, duo Steven Spence and John Laughland took to the stage in the Baltasound Hall, and raised the roof with their concert set, leaving the rightfully proud local audience, joost braaly high. Most of the tunes they played were Steven’s compositions, a number of them great tunes we had never heard before. It was certainly evident from the quality of the tunes played that night and the performance given, this book and CD are long overdue. We hope Steven will continue to perform his compositions on stage and inspire further generations of Shetland fiddlers.

An excellent collection of tunes, a source of material to enhance any fiddlers repertoire.

Fiddlers’ Bid

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