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.