Music: Celtic Connections 2022 by Joanna Royle

Amidst the hokey cokey of evolving post-holidays pandemic regulations, it looked unlikely that so much as a gig would go ahead this January, let alone a whole festival. For Glaswegians hoping for something to brighten these dark days Celtic Connections getting the go-ahead was the good news they hardly dared hope for. Of course, it was a pared-back offering, but the anticipation of cancellation made every show more of a treat, and not a single musician took the stage this year without profound gratefulness to finally be in front of live audiences again: whether the seated crowd or those dancing in the aisles. 

All pics by Gaelle Beri

Heal & Harrow @ GRCH

Equally exciting was the digital pass which affordably opened up the festival to the world. Responding to the climate crisis, in 2020 Celtic Connections committed to cutting back on bringing international artists to Glasgow. For a festival whose very identity hinges on convoking world-music, this laudable goal must have been tinged with anxiety, but just months later global forces would strongarm creative new ways of being a musical community. In the midst of international and ecological crisis, this new hybrid platter tied together live and online audiences in a musical feast for the soul.

Sing Me a Story

More Celtic than Connection 

By necessity, homegrown acts dominated in 2022, and many regular faces from the international roots folk and fusion scenes have postponed their concerts until the warmer months. However, it would be a rare January indeed if the warhorses of Celtic Connections were not around for some merry-making. Mainstays of the Scottish folk scene from Bruce MacGregor, Mike McGoldrick, Karen Matheson, Anna Massie, Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham, Julie Fowlis, John McCusker, Kris Drever, Duncan Chisholm, Findlay Napier, to festival director himself, Donald Shaw, were on hand with collaborations, support roles, and virtuoso shows.

30-plus years on the road, Old Blind Dogs once again brought the kind of bacchanalian buskers banter that can sweet-talk a crowd into team scat singing from the first tune. Still dapper if no longer strictly young, their call to go absolutely mental was taken to heart by a fanbase that reflected the jazz-reggae-rock-trad fusion of the Scottish giants who have come out to party. Showcasing their recently released Knucklehead Circus, an album with the declared aim of getting people dancing, this was a set that had strangers spinning each other (with covid-safe elbows and masks) up and down the gangways. In short, a trad gig just shouldn’t – no just SHOULD be this much fun.

Newer faces in on the scene, Gaelic vocal trio Sian deserve all the adjectives for beautiful singing that are increasingly being laid at their feet. Brought together in 2016 by the Highlands Blas festival, the gorgeous harmonies and cheery stage presence of Ellen MacDonald, Ceitlin Lilidh and Eilidh Cormack belie a recent origin story. As “Mega-Sian” with full backing band and excitedly heckling family, this gig was an airy, gladsome affair. 

SIAN – Celtic Connections

Album Launches 

Celtic Connections is such a pivotal moment in the folk and roots calendar that many choose it to launch new albums to loyal audiences. Not twiddling their thumbs during lockdown, a host of artists are here with shiny new material to share.

Able to summon thunderous frenzy whenever Ewen Henderson so much as looks at a set of bagpipes, Mànran have been one of the most vibrant Scottish live acts for over a decade. Recently Kim Carnie joined the chaps, bringing her silken lilt to the line-up and fronting their fourth studio album Ùrar, released in October 2021. Expanding to a seven-piece just as live venues shut their doors, this was the first outing of an outfit who are still at the cutting edge of contemporary Gaelic music, and they clearly loved it as much – if not more – than ever.

Opening for Mànran, neo-Irish Sligo group Moxie (below) were promoting their second album Dawn of Motion, on a mission to bring alt-folk in into the modern age. Mashing up an early 80s pop vibe, with double high-kicks while squeezing the accordion, and ululation from Tunisian-heritage singer Julia Spanu, this is an infectiously funky take on trad.

Usually found cheerfully skippering the Blazin’ Fiddles or hosting BBC’s Travelling Folk, veteran fiddler Bruce MacGregor professes to be slower to write and quicker to chuck music, and brand-new album Road to Tyranny has apparently been percolating for twenty years. Master of the comic call-back we are, of course, treated to some favourite tall tales from his escapades with Billy Connelly and being a squirrel while composing for the ballet, but it is the high-spirited energy of these old-new tunes that made this damp Wednesday night one of the warmest of the festival.

New Voices

Celtic Connections takes seriously its role as a launchpad for the living tradition, and many of the greats of modern folk, from Karine Polwart to Rura, got a leg up at its daily 5pm Open Stage. New Voices is its annual festival commission, inviting promising talent to produce a full suite of new music. Usually found with Celtic-fusion hullabaloo the Peatbog Faeries, this year’s composer Ross Cooper has a charming lack of names for most of the tunes that adventure far beyond a standard set of fiddle jigs and reels. From a 7/4 time signature – dancing to which, he wryly observes, is easier if you have one leg shorter than the other – to an ambitious 10 minute finale, Cooper describes his set as an onslaught of people absolutely hammering the hell out of their instruments. In the best possible way.

Scotland’s Year of Stories

Of recent times Celtic Connections has launched Scotland’s Themed Years, and 2022 is no different. Taking up the Year of Stories, a rich vein of the oral tradition wove through the festival. Particularly beautiful were multi-media collaborations that came into their own in the digital festival. Trad chandlers Braebach teamed up with Scottish BAFTA-winning animator Cat Bruce to score a hypnotic black-and-white stop-motion folktale of selkies, hunter-dogs, and the spirits of the towering hills. Heel and Harrow debuted a collaboration visualising and retelling the stories of women persecuted and tried as witches in Scotland. And narrating magnificent characters from Glasgow, Ainsley Hamill’s mellow first album Not Just Ship Land emerged from work with the Govan reminiscence group with film footage illustrating under-told heroes from rent-activist Mary Barbour to pioneering swimming gold-medallist Belle Moore.

In Spell Songs, Robert MacFarlane’s The Lost Words project to rehabilitate the dandelion, otter, and acorn for children of the digital age, has emerged into an ecology-art wildlife meditation that speaks across genres and audiences. Just a couple of months after the United Nations descended on Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference, this timely performance summed up the best of Celtic Connections: a glitterati of Scottish folk fused with international instrumentation telling the stories of our spaces, places, hopes and fears, with the injunction to let the raven call you home.

Connections alongside the Celtic

Closing up the fortnight was festival flagship gallimaufry the Transatlantic Sessions: a gentle back-porch jam of handpicked guests and musical elders across the special relationship. Where 2020 brought over 80 Stateside friends, just six were shepherded across the ocean this year by band leader Jerry Douglas. Among them Haitian heritage multi-instrumentalist Layla McCalla merits special applause for a double-outing of her stirring songs of social justice as both a solo show and fortified by the session houseband. 

Anoushka Shankar

It is always hard to pick festival highlights. There are perennial delights such as the tryptic of Mike McGoldrick’s Farewell to Whalley Range, Bruce MacGregor’s Annie’s Waltz, and Dirk Powell’s Waterbound, which root the festival year on year. However, the clipped wings of world music made the mesmeric Orchestral Qawwali Project a head-and-shoulders standout. Opening for London-based sitar maestro Anoushka Shankar(above), the Qawwali project is a truly remarkable bringing together of 13th century Sufi devotional music with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Fronted by bewitching singer Abi Sampa, composer Rushil, and tabla phenomenon Amrit Singh, this moving dialogue between east and west broke down tradition gender and accompaniment barriers, while carrying audiences away into the space of legends and dreams.  

As live music finally begins to emerge from the uncertainties of venue closures and audience caps, Celtic Connections felt like the first real hurrah of brighter times on the horizon. Turning ahead to its 30th anniversary next year, if storm clouds have golden linings, the new mix of venue and digital platforms connecting the Celtic diaspora with emerging audiences, and with each other, is a birthday present worth looking forward to.