In a year when most music festivals dolefully shut their stages, Celtic Connections lit up late winter with an online celebration that brought Glasgow to the world. A few weeks on, we reflect back at what they got so right.
Like a great cup of coffee, it has taken time to percolate our thoughts about this year’s world-leading folk, roots, world, and trad festival. There was unquestionable grief and loss at nights not spent dancing at the glittering fairy-lit Fruitmarket, sitting the refined splendour of the Concert Hall, or supping a pint in the atmospheric deconsecrated St Lukes. But these were tempered with new pleasures: a programme formatted as a musical tasting-menu, affordability to the modest budget, and going to gigs in your pyjamas.
Director Donald Shaw and his team deserve nothing but the highest praise for successfully fostering a proper sense of occasion. This fortnight has been breathing life into the darker Clydeside months for the past 28 years, and translating that buzz from stage to screen was no easy task. Yet, against the odds, it worked. Families gathered round the telly each evening for the next musical instalment, spilling their bubbling joy out onto social media. A new generation of very young Celtic Connection-ers were introduced to festival mainstays, while parents re-lived their more footloose pre-babysitter youth. Where the world used to come to Glasgow, Glasgow came to the world, with far-flung audiences from 65 countries tuning in for a musical feast for the soul.
Dearly loved lynchpins of the Scottish folk scene (think Rant, Karen Polwart, Eddi Reader, Findlay Napier, Shooglenifty, Duncan Chisholm, Karen Matheson, Kris Drever , Cherish the Ladies, and more) interspersed with both the new roots generation and the well-stocked, cross-genre, larder of the Celtic diaspora. Over the last decade bands such as Elephant Sessions, Ímar, Talisk, and Manran, have been leading a domestic charge to reinvent trad in the rock-star mould. But equally seasoned through the musical casserole were global sounds, from irrepressibly joyful Quebecois regulars Le Vent de Nord, through the soaring African virtuosos Gambian Sona Jobartehand Sudanese Amira Kahir, and travelling right out to Rajasthan and the Jodhpur Riff.
Cross-programming has always been a hallmark of Celtic Connections. In former years you may have thought you were heading out to see some French jazz-fusion, but would inevitably find yourself lured into a rollocking hoedown with beatboxing on a tuba. Or vice versa. With one main gig per night, the scaled-back virtual stage took this voyage of discovery to a whole new level. Where a live venue might have 2 or 3 on the billing, these pre-recorded concerts offered a smorgasboard of 5, 6, 7 or more different artists, and we cannot have been the only ones using the 1-week digital catch-up to reheat morsels of the sumptuous banquet.
Of course the gold-ticket flagship events were still there: the curated pub-jam of the Transatlantic Sessions took its moniker literally, co-recording luminaries from the two sides of the ocean. Roddy Hart called up all his pals to produce the 9th Roaming Roots Review. Always skating the rockier edge of folk, this annual labour of love (themed Songs for Survival) took in the long view, with stars from the 1980s in Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh, through the mid-2000s indie-guitar explosion with Field Music and Simon Neil (of Biffy Clyro and Marmaduke Duke), to up-and-coming artists such as Heir of the Cursed. For the die-hard festival goers the always-popular workshop programme was as rich as ever, as was the much-loved Danny Kyle Open Stage showcasing new musical talent. And while not an official festival event, it would be a strange year indeed had we not been treated to a full night in the uplifting company of the Highlands and Islands very own energetic collection of banter and tunes that is Blazin’ Fiddles.
When you can watch a whole festival from the comfort of your sofa, it becomes especially difficult to choose just a few highlights. There was, of course, the lovely comic Hunting for Angus, Shooglenifty’s elegy to their visionary (and often elusive) former lead fiddler. But equally fantastic were the swirling Armenian Shaloka, by Greg Lawson and the festival band, or the Jethro Tull-like whistle multiphonics of Project Smok. The weirdly transfixing soundscape storytelling of Martin Green’s The Portal (https://www.martingreenmusic.co.uk/the-portal) had us hooked on an epic saga for the modern age. While Irish-resident North-Carolinian Rhiannon Giddens pulled our collective heartstrings during the gospel classic Up above my head I hear music in the air, saying “This is the time where I usually ask everybody to sing along… I just won’t be able to hear you, and that’s my loss. But would you sing for me and I’ll just imagine you singing.”
But perhaps the choice is not as hard as it seems, because topping and tailing the two weeks in the opening and closing concerts were a pair of sparce and beautiful songs that spoke to the very best that Scotland can be. Opening the bookends, Karine Polwart’s Come Away In, written after Burns’ poem The Wren’s Nest, addresses hospitality, welcome to the outsider, and Glasgow’s open heart receiving refugees. And closing things off, Rachel Sermanni sang to everyone missing music, missing family, and missing home in the delicate, quirky Lay My Heart. For folks homesick for the city, the stunning opening fly over sequence, culminating in award-winning bagpipe collective Tryst parading up Buchanan Street, was a bonny, bittersweet, proud showcasing of the best of the Dear Green Place.
As the spring returns and the roadmap back to live music is on the table, the Celtic Connections team can bask in the knowledge that, in the words of their director they “kept the musical lights on through what has been a dark year”. And while the tours of Highland scenery, American studios, and historic moonlit walls in India has been a visual extravaganza that lifted us out of our lockdown kitchens and back bedrooms; we can’t wait to be back together to share it all in person again in Glasgow next year.