Music: Celtic Connections 2023 by Joanna Royle

When I turned 30 I hired a pub, gathered a motley bunch of friends with a riotous catalogue of musical instruments to drink and jam into the small hours. It seems that Celtic Connections had the same 30th birthday plans. 

After two covid years, it was great to see this beacon of international musical collaboration back fully in person, packing out halls as varied as the artists playing them. When a festival covers 18 nights and pulls in a hundred thousand punters, it is only possible to take in a snapshot of the 300 roots, folk, trad, alt and world musicians who flock to the city.

However, Glasgow boasts some truly iconic venues, and the festival takes in 25 locations that tell its stories as much as the music which fills them. Here are just a few of the places that make Celtic Connections the warmest place to spend the coldest time of the year.

The Royal Concert Hall: Firelight Trio, Assynt, The Friel Sisters

The grand semi-circular steps of the imposing Royal Concert Hall façade are a Glaswegian muster point for baby goths, trade unionists, and ladies who lunch. These prestigious halls are also the mothership of Celtic Connections, and an evening in its gorgeous acoustics sits you in the velvet-richness of its beating heart. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Danny Kyle Open Stage, which welcomes anyone coming up those steps on a first-come-first-served basis to drop in for a daily two-hour buffet of emerging talent.

Danny Kyle Open Stage

It is also where the many trios who form a tight knit world of Celtic trad come to launch new albums, catch up with old friends, and invite audiences into their metaphoric living rooms for a session. Whistles, pipes, fiddles, and bodhrans are effortlessly handed round like a charcuterie board of multi-instrumentalist talent. 

A trio of trios, Firelight Trio, Assynt, and The Friel Sisters are all especially delighted to be back at this annual highland gathering of top talent, where their pals are playing in next door rooms. Statuesque, be-heeled, and in full sparkles, the Friels are Glasgow natives with roots firmly in the Donegal Gaeltacht. Heritage underpins all their music, and the self-deprecating sibling banter is as wholesome as the songs learnt at their Granny’s knee. They deliver a repertoire from traditional grace-noted Gaelic ballads, through social justice protest songs, to pop-infused Americana, with the showmanship that testifies to a lifetime on stage.  

With two new covid-themed albums on the table outside – titles we all rather hope will not age well – both support acts brought upbeat characterful toe-tapping tunes. However, inevitably, the Strathclyde Suite attracts a more sedate audience, and neither group has yet achieved the level of popularity that makes Gaelic trad sexy, though both have the potential for more raucous performances at standing venues that support a party mood.

The Old Fruitmarket: Mec Lir and Peatbog Faeries

Staying nearby in the city centre, with its exposed brickwork, wrought-iron arches, high vaulted ceiling and multi-coloured lanterns, the historic Old Fruitmarket is a short walk but a massive vibe away from the stately Concert Hall.  It’s Imbolc weekend, the return of the light, and the packed-out crowd are dolled up and ready to shake off the long winter. Two huge groups with huge sounds and huge talents to match, Mec Lir and the Peatbog Fairies certainly don’t let them down.

Mythologically Mec Lir is the powerful sea god: saviour or downfall of many a sailing ship. Musically this Manx-Glasgow collaboration is a rock band in skeleton, beefed out with bodhran, fiddle, and an eclectic selection of increasingly humorous hired synth instruments. Delivering perhaps the most exciting set of the festival, the boys are en-route to becoming cult favourites and having a riotously fun time along the way.

Sharing a proclivity for both mythological nomenclature and fusing funk, electronica, and trance with Celtic tunes, Skye’s Peatbog Faeries picked up the high-octane party as Mec Lir left the stage. Established scenesters, the Faeries have been collecting generations of new audiences and band members since the early 90s, and tonight is no different. The stage is busting with special (and sparkly) guests including a whole brass section. Naturally in a fraternity where every member is a composer, the repertoire is as varied and exciting as the bouncing dancefloor before them.

The Hug and Pint: Yoko Pwno & NoGood Boyo 

Head out of town along the shops and bars of Great Western Road now, and you’ll come across the aptly named Hug and Pint. The vintage hipster vibe of this eclectic vegan eaterie -come- craft beer spot -come- small event venue makes it the perfect cosy location for a gig as irreverently bonkers as Scottish acid-crofters Yoko Pwno and Welsh trash-tradders NoGood Boyo.

Perhaps cosy isn’t quite the word, as the low-ceilinged industrial-décor room is so muggy with sweaty bodies that Yoko Pwno facetiously decide to close their set with ‘Long Bath’. Soon to celebrate their 10th anniversary, this self-described ‘6-Way electro-tradgasm’ have a sound like the whimsical three-way love child of Kate Bush, Allo Darling, and Croft No5. []

If it was the Edinburgh natives that brought out a local fanbase on a miserable evening, it was Het Gymreig-sporting havoc-causers NoGood Boyo who kept them ripping up the sweltering dance floor. The words to 18th century songs about multi-coloured goats are merrily mangled by ebullient punters more familiar with the 90s nu-metal inflections that layered on by these ardent Dylan Thomas enthusiasts. Mix in some John Lennon glasses, uncle-at-a-wedding pogo dancing, and a VERY heavy baseline, and really who wouldn’t find themselves cheerfully bouncing along chanting ‘fuck the Tories’ to a set of trad jigs?

Oran Mor: The Fras and The Poozies

A mile further along, Great Western Road unpeels into the elegant tree-lined streets, ancient University towers, and spacious botanical gardens of Glasgow’s prosperous, vibrant, West End.  Once a particularly devout city, Oran Mor – Big Song in Gaelic – is one of many beautiful Victorian churches here that have since found new cultural congregations for a less God-fearing age.

Upstairs, the chattering classes are politely sipping at the handsome bar and frescoed event spaces, but down in the low-ceilinged crypt the Fras are bringing infectious high energy Tiree island music to a footloose gathering. This is trad to get your dancing shoes on. Not to be outdone by the profane ribaldry of their headline friends, they swarm astage to deliver an incomparably sweary hangover singalong ‘Port and Brandy What a Bloody Great Shout’.

Said headliners, the Poozies have elder stateswoman status on the folk scene. Which is odd because they are scatological, mischievous, chaotic, and frankly hilarious. A sequined house party of all their pals, after a wafting gesture to folk music (if songs about getting wrinkly bath skin can be subsumed in the genre) they get down to the greatest Love Shack hits of their youth. From an audience poll on the desirability of an expensive car versus a big cock, to former bandmate Tia’s triangle-tapping gravelly-screaming Puck sporting a false beard made from a multicoloured tinsel wig, this is side-splitting Cbeebies therapy for elder millennials. 

St Luke and the Winged Ox: Siobhan Miller

Staying north of the river, it’s a bus-ride back through town to the up-and-coming venues of the East End. The Barrowlands Ballroom, with its iconic neon sign, has long enjoyed internationally fame. Now newer ventures in Townhead and Calton are adding repurposed heritage buildings to the city’s musical medley. 

St Luke and the Winged Ox, as the name suggests, is another converted church. Instead of the dark vaults of Oran Mor, audiences here are surrounded by the vibrant colours of stained-glass windows illuminating the nave. It is a perfect setting for Siobhan Miller, a lass who can really belt out a song. With a stage presence as captivating as her voice, like a consummate ringmaster she takes us from quiet tragic Scots ballads to poppy and playful Americana.  A Celtic Connections regular and holder of Scots Trad Singer of the Year a staggering four times, Siobhan is one of the great talents of contemporary folk.

Drygate: Beans on Toast

Given how many Beans On Toast songs focus on great pubs, it is fitting that we round out our festival tour at the Drygate. This former box factory is named for the old Tennant Calendonian Brewery nearby. With an impressive taproom of in-house craft beers, a fairy-lit event space, and a local community ethos, in just 8 years the Drygate has become a warmly loved Glasgow institution. 

Beans on Toast is equally loved though, as a pal points out, he basically has only one tune. Armed with just a guitar, a fat marker pen, and a warmhearted mission to make the world a little bit less shit, he is less musician and more troubadour poet.  Whether introducing his daughter to classic vinyl or airing his candid belief in the goodness of the masses, that one tune does all the heavy lifting needed to capture a roomful of activist hearts. 

Both an incarnate storyteller and an inveterate idealist, he cycles through fun and bleak songs – one for the crowd and one for the underdog – with that irrepressible Beansness which brings dogged cheerful optimism to tough topics.

Along the way we touch on politics (with a wryly short shelf life, after Liz Truss’s besting by a lettuce), drugs (whether taking them – the always popular MDMA song – or the protest War on Drugs), family (firm audience favourite Home When You Hold Me), and chickens. Well actually birds in general, but especially chickens.

Folk is always music which hold in tension a world full of horror and full of hope. So it seems fitting to close a review of Celtic Connections here, in the pub, with a room of newfound friends overcoming their surprise at being gifted a song about Scotland’s sunny weather. As we collectively joyfully belt out ‘Life Goes On’ – a desiderata for the modern age  – the living tradition feels fully alive and ready to take on the world.