Music Review: Celtic Connections 2019

It’s Imbolc, the Celtic festival of the return of the light: and in Glasgow they don’t wait around for warmth to come to them. Here January is lit up by two weeks of musical revelry as the Celtic Connections festival takes over almost every art space in the city. From the cultural garrison of the Royal Concert Hall, through the fairy-lit shopfronts of the Old Fishmarket, the Victorian grandeur of the Kings Theatre, the iconic neon-signed Barrowlands Ballroom, and the hipster vibe of Drygate Brewery, the city becomes a carnival of sound.  

Blazin Fiddles @ King’s Theatre for Celtic Connections. Photographer: Gaelle Beri

Now in its 26th year, the festival is a pillar of Scotland’s cultural calendar. Harnessing the power of music to bring folks together, on a Monday you might take in some vintage Jazz (for example by The Hot Sardines); on Tuesday a play about bagpipes (Thunderstruck); by Wednesday you could kick up your glam-rock heels (The Dandy Warhols), Thursday clap along to the concertinas and bodhráns of award-winning young trad (Talisk and Vishtèn), and before you’ve even got to the weekend it’s a world-music Friday night of Malian lute groit-funk fusion (Basekou Kouyate). As the largest global event of its kind, drawing over 2100 artists, Celtic Connections is an almighty winter shindig of roots, folk, and indie music from the Celtic nations, their well-travelled descendants, and far beyond.  

The Transatlantic Connection

Besides death by drowning, cruel wars, or being inadvertently shot for looking like a swan, migration to the New World is a staple theme of Celtic song. Spurred by the clearances, Jacobite uprisings, and famine, millions of Scots and Irish folks left their families, homelands and loves, rarely to return. Along with their broken hearts, they took with them language, music, and dance.  These traditions lived, breathed, and in some cases were serendipitously preserved by their descendants. 

A remarkable example is Scottish step dance. Once the integral percussion to traditional music, step was entirely lost at home but has hung on in Nova Scotia. The wickedly fast-flying feet of Sophie Stephenson, a leading figure in its Highland revival, is a particular joy of the festival. Sophie pops up adding unique texture to performances ranging from relative scene newcomers such as Jamie MacDonald and Christian Gamauf, to establishment award-winners like Tosta and Phil Cunningham.  

Steph Geremia

Another distinguished talent whose career brought her westwards across the Atlantic is Irish-American flautist Steph Geremia. Now living in the province, she has set up musical home in the nuanced tunes of North Connacht. A balance of lightening-speed fingerwork and chocolate-rich tone on melodies old and new have soared Steph to critical acclaim. This ruggedly coastlined region cradles masters of the subtle inflection, and the long-awaited second album ‘Up She Flew’, shows her to be one of them. 

 The Celtic Fringe

However it would be a mistake to confine the Celtic branding to the Scots-Irish tradition. Two entirely different, but equally jubilant, groups showcase its warmer Southern fringes. 

Fisherman’s Friends

Usually found on a Cornish harbour wall, Fisherman’s Friends last brought their “foot-stomping, bawdy songs of sailors” to Glasgow in 2011. Since then the all-male singing buddies have gone on to great things, with a forthcoming eponymously named movie soon to document their exploits.  Traditionally sea shanties have a limited range of rousingly blokeish themes: hard work (John Kanaka) disappointing wages (Roll the Woodpile Down) drinking (Drop of Nelson’s Bloody) leaving sweethearts (Leave her Johnny) or returning to them (Mingualay Boat Song). But in these politically turbulent times there is also special poignancy to Union of Different Kinds: a song written for these hearty chaps about the things that unite us rather than tearing us apart.

Tanxuguieras

Hang around in trad circles, and someone whipping out a set of bagpipes without warning is par for the course. Not so much when it comes to tambourines the size of tractor wheels. The diminutive figures of Sabela Maneiro, Aida Tarrío and Olaia Maneiro, who form Tanxuguieras are not only unfazed by their magnificent instrumentation, they positively spring it around the stage. A massive hit at last year’s festival, the women are bringing a new voice with a feminist twist to the close-harmonies and pandeireta of the autonomous Spanish province of Galicia. Nothing is lost in translation as gleeful handwaving covers any gaps in language, and the staid and unsuspecting audience are cajoled into shared delight.

Classic Americana

Looking further afield, from bluegrass to country-pop, Celtic Connections also brims with the contemporary Americana from across the pond.

In the case of Canadian singer-songwriter duo Madison Violet, that Americana comes in an astonishing pink trilby and suit.  With gaiety and panache the two friends barnstorm the audience through 20-years of anecdotes on whiskey, drapes and gun control. Theirs are self-confessed sad songs of small-town love and loss, but with such a jolly delivery it is impossible to leave downhearted. 

Atop the far-branching family tree of popular folk is Judy Collins. The matriarch of the beat generation may be in her 80s, but her soprano is as sublime as when she was the lynchpin of New York’s Greenwich Village. Weaving casual tales of the late-night parties and romantic entanglements of old friends Bob, Pete, and Lenard (Dylan, Seeger and Cohen respectively), she gossips and sparkles like half those years were but yesterday. Breaking hearts with universally loved classics Send in the Clowns, Both Sides Now, and Amazing Grace, to have her start the festival ball rolling is a silver lining to her postponed summer tour.

 Scottish Trad

Having sailed round some of the unique Connections, it would be remiss to overlook the exceptional homegrown talent which form the deckhands of the festival ship. 

Breabach

Obviously there’s pipes, whistles, fiddlesand accordions galore across the fortnight, but not all award-winning bands also boast a double bass. Having just released their 6th studio album, and with a downstairs toilet full of trophies, Breabach are well on their way to becoming trad aristocracy before they are out of short trousers. Though youths themselves, this is a band for the older crowd who know how to prize technical skill.

Contrastingly on their first outing The Tweed Project are all about the craic. Do you know the story of Orpheus? Neither do they, but they know a sort of similar song about a nasty king from Orkney.  They also know a rarer-than-hens-teeth one in which the lad actually comes back, marries the girl, and lives happily ever after (The Bleacher Girl of Kelvinhall). And, since this is modern folk, Manchester-based duo Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar have a helpful set of tunes entitled Swipe Right so that he can find her in the first place. Dancing and merriment abound, as an ebullient punter kicks off an impromptu ceilidh underneath the approving nose of the band.  The Project is a reboot, now fronted by the bewitching Lewisian lilt of Josie Duncan. With a line-up that holds fists-full of Radio 2 Folk Awards from other ventures, let’s hope that they get an album out soon to add one more.  

The Tweed Project

Trad musicians often play in multiple combinations and it is remarkable how infrequently they bother giving such collaborations a name. On the final night of the festival, whilst the Concert Hall is packed for the flagship Transatlantic Sessions, across the other side of town, a quintessentially Highland pipes and strings double bill of relative newcomers Jamie MacDonald and Christian Gamauf and festival mainstays Mariearad Green and Anna Massie brings out family, friends and a younger crowd. The lads draw on tunes from across the Celtic diaspora, but at heart have a sound that every Scot knows from village-hall dances. It turns out they are also having a domestic Tetris crisis, as they need to sell the boxes of recently released CDs ‘The Pipe Slang’ in order to get to the fridge. Veterans of the tall-tale, their stage-mates try the same album-sales trick with the promise of a closer look at Mariearad’s Emperors new trousers. With fingers flying like a knitting group social, this pair of prodigious tune writers continue to be as effortless when playing together as when ragging one another. Until recently their repertoire contained few songs, with only Dougie MacLean’s She Loves Me When I Try to accompany a well-worn yarn about washing lines.  It is therefore particularly enjoyable that, giddy from the excitement of coming down from Achiltiebuie they toss in some bonny slow airs, and macabrely merry singalongs to the set.

In the manner of saving the best until last, no band perhaps exemplifies the energy of Celtic Connections better than Blazin’ Fiddles.  From the fiery Up Helly Aa spirit of the opening Shetland reels, to a closing circus-acrobatics mishap flashing Bruce MacGregors kecks, a night with the Blazers is always a party. Turning 21 this year, the energetic Highlands and Islands supergroup have reached the age of majority if not of maturity. They bring along Capercaillie legend Karen Matheson to add gravitas and a puirt-à-beul that is second to none. Waulking songs from the Hebrides, love songs from the Northern Irish Troubles, and Burns songs from down the road pepper the high-octane tune-sets, and warm the cockles. 

So there it was, a jubilant, heart-lifting, foot-stomping, hullabaloo of the living tradition, keeping out the winter gloaming. All in all, as Ciaran Algar, of The Tweed Project, observed, at a time when such things seem to be in short supply, Celtic Connections delivers the pure joy of being a “celebration of music and togetherness, and we all need more of that”.

www.celticconnections.com

Professional swot with a side interest in folk, folk-punk, folk-metal, and climbing hills. Scottish immigrant. Very clumsy. Moderately good at crochet.

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