That Celtic Connections is a musical lighthouse shining through the Scottish January drear is a cliché. But like all clichés it exists for a reason. For two weeks a year it lights up Glasgow, attracting 130,000 people, to 300 gigs, across 29 venues, igniting the cold nights with a warm harbour of sound.
To torture a metaphor, things started off stormy. Specifically, the go-big-or-go-home 10 meter tall recycled puppet Storm whose emergence from the Clyde and procession through the city kicked off the fortnight and Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters. A new departure for the 27-year old event, it brought the festival to the rising tide of a new, climate-aware public.
At heart Celtic Connections is a folk festival, but don’t let that send you down the beach socks-with-sandals road. It is an always-eclectic mix of world, Americana, blues, jazz, indie, and more, drawing in artists from all corners of the globe. The sybaritically-voiced Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara is as much a line-up mainstay as Scots Highlands and Islanders Blazin’ Fiddles. Since our preferred musical coastlines lean to the whistles and accordions of neo-trad and Celtic-fusion, here is a rundown of some of the big names and newer voices that brought the party to Glasgow this year.
At risk of sweeping generalisations roots musicians come in two humours: the taciturn and the loquacious. One gets through more tunes but the other is the kingfisher of the tall tale. Bruce MacGregor and Grace Petrie both draw crowds as much for their craic as their infectious music.
In the 1990s Bruce MacGregor set out to re-forge interest in Scottish fiddle music at a time when it was dismissed as (and we quote) “crap” by the trad musical establishment. Perhaps the most inveterate and comical storyteller on the circuit, he is promoting his recently published The Highlanders Revenge, capturing the tales behind the tunes. Predictably it takes him a story or two (Aleister Crowley and the Daily Mail; trolling with the fictional Sir Henri Laphroaig Dinoir; the catastrophic effects of Dutch-courage on stage stability) to get to the point. The crowd leaves chortling, although quietly aware that in the achingly beautiful Annie’s Waltz they already heard the tune of the festival.
Contrastingly, self-declared socialist lesbian activist protest-singer Grace Petrie has walked the walk of the struggling busking troubadour. Her Scottish fanbase has been a slow burn, but you would hardly know that tonight as bubbling excitement packs out King Tuts. As Grace grinningly remarks “you lot will cheer at anything won’t you?” A wildly appreciative crowd readily belt back the trans-lives matter refrain of Black Tie and keep her on team-sport track with Graham Moore’s upbeat leftie classic Tom Paine’s Bones. Never missing the opportunity to tell a wry self-deprecating anecdote, we hear about her travel mishaps, life as a doting aunt, and the love-lessons she has learnt from that great modern philosopher, Princess Elsa. In these troubled times it’s an uplifting reminder that politics is playing the long game: in light of which you should definitely catch her when she returns north of the border in April.
The Living Tradition
Perhaps despite the protestations so far made, the mention of trad still makes you think of a cloth-capped bloke with one finger in his ear bewailing drownings in the Napoleonic wars. If so, you’ve clearly missed the memo. In the 21st century bands like Elephant Sessions, Mànran, Breabach, Skerryvore, and Talisk are the new rock-and-roll of Scottish folk, driving fast-paced, high-octane tunes for the late-night festival crowd. And this is even before we get to Stornoway’s Peat and Diesel whose 12-month meteoric rise into the pop charts saw them adding an extra under-16s show to complement the Barrowlands gig that sold out within hours of release.
Glaswegian concertina-extraordinaire Mohsen Amini is a dapper poster-boy at the heart of this birling pandemonium. If he hasn’t yet won any awards this year, it is only because he swept the boards over the previous five, with plaudits as wide-ranging as Radio 2 Musician of the Year and the List’s Hot 100. Launched in 2016, Ímar is the second of his two main musical projects.
The band draws together stars from across neo-trad, but has its roots set firmly in childhood friendships from the Irish Comhaltas. The lads have been enjoying all the merriment that the hometown festival has to offer and are used to a raucous audience. Undeterred by the formal seated environment of City Halls which attracts the silver pound, they ambitiously pull off a pretty darn loud tune-only singalong for l’Air Mignonne from a loyal crowd.
As the festival matures so do some of its regular crowd-pleasing faces, and inevitably someone goes and has a notable birthday that merits laying on a bit of a bash. Entering his 6th decade, Phil Cunningham has been a pillar of promoting trad since his youth (when we learn from a nearby punter, he set sail to Denmark aged 15 and wound up on the mainstage of Roskilde Festival).
To say he set out to enjoy a special birthday with friends is to wildly understate the glitterati of musicians and protegees crossing the stage this evening. Nevertheless, facing down competition as stiff as Cherish the Ladies, Ian Carr, Flook, and long term bantering partner Aly Bain, the show is entirely stolen by the outstanding talents of 10-year olds April and Myles MacAulay whose stage-presence is every bit the equal of their 60-year old mentor.
The Celtic diaspora took most people across the Atlantic, and the musical link to the New World is strong. In recent years the annual Roaming Roots Revue has become among the best-loved events of the festival. The premise is essentially that Roddy Hart takes a theme, calls up all his mates, and bungs together a topical extravaganza.
The topic of Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday was clearly Born to Run, as it made an immediate sell-out, and needed a second fixture added to the calendar. Roddy’s covers band The Lonesome Fire backed up stars from either side of the pond for some hugely enjoyable nights of Dancing in the Dark (sorry-not-sorry).
However, sometimes an important anniversary is not of the artist, but the music. The unique talents of Mancunian flautist Mike McGoldrick are always a festival highlight, and this year he retraced 20 years back to the hotly-anticipated release of his Fused album. Launched and recrudesced under the multi-coloured lights and nostalgic shop-fronted walls of the Old Fruitmarket, even in party-mode Mike is always more about the music than the chat; but he knows his audience well, and closed the encore off with his Farewell to a Whalley Range, perhaps the best-loved trad tune of the modern age.
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot
More than anything else Celtic Connections feels like you stumbled into a back-porch ceilidh of old pals sharing tunes, tales, horseplay and song. Titans in their own field, Eddi Reader, John McCusker, Kate Rusby, Kris Drever, Anna Massie, Aiden O’Rourke, Mike McGoldrick, Karine Polwart, Jarlath Henderson or Karen Matheson suddenly pop up in all manner of musical situations. Of an evening festival-director and Capercaillie-legend, Donald Shaw might be found sprinting a mile across the city just to do a turn with Bruce MacGregor during the interval of another gig.
Since the mid-1990s the festival has had its own curated pub-jam in the Transatlantic Sessions. Bringing together the Special Relationship under the mirthful watch of maestros Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas, the night is a guaranteed selection-box treat of Americana and Celtic-fringe trad. Though the house-band is largely chaps, the night belonged to the ladies including up-and-coming female singer-songwriters Scottish Rachel Sermanni and Tennessee-native Sierra Hull, whose Lullaby would bring a tear to a glass eye. John Doyle treated us to a feminist cross-dressing sea ballad (spoiler: she kills the cheating bloke and takes over the ship), whilst Dervish frontwoman Cathy Jordon gave the hard-sell for tonight’s recording in true folk-legend style by launching into a detailed account of the value of owning an inflatable man.
Timing is everything, and the timing of Celtic Connections means that there is always an excuse for a Burns Night basecamp shindig at the Royal Concert Hall. Every Scottish schoolchild has a smattering of the Bard, but no-one has made his songs their own quite like Eddi Reader, whose 2003 album of the late Kevin McCrae’s arrangements has become a benchmark for joyful Rabbie merrymaking. Joined by equally magnificent contributions from Karen Matheson, Jarlath Henderson and Shona Donaldson, backed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and genially hosted for live broadcast by Jamie MacDougall, the night celebrated the mischief, romance, hustle, and high jinks of our national poet.
From such a star-studded night it is hard to choose highlights, but the crowd taking the tune whilst Eddi giddily do-si-doed to the effervescent celebration of friendship that is ‘You’re Welcome Willie Stewart’ is a strong contender. Rounding out with Auld Lang Syne, it’s good to know that auld acquaintances will not be forgot, and we will be back to celebrate it all again next year.
All photos courtesy of Gaelle Beri