Celtic Connections 2016: Part four

And so, all good things must come to an end… In the fourth and final of their reports from the Celtic Connections 2016, Joanna Royle and Sam Law take us through their highlights of the festival’s final throes.


Iain MacFarlane, with Margaret Stewart Trio

St Andrews in the Square, 20/01/2016

Highland music is a self-attested family, and nowhere is this more apparent than an evening with the wonderful Ian MacFarlane and friends.  Like a follically-challenged Gandalf gathering dwarves at Frodo’s door, tonight Iain steadily introduces luminaries and brilliant colleagues until the stage is crammed with the best of Lochaber, Ross and Cromarty.  Opening is the rare talent of Lewis Gaelic singer Margaret Stewart who keeps alive an ancient body of songs that accompany piobaireachd. Haunting, majestic, and uncommonly heard outside expert circles, bagpipe piobaieachd are among the most unique musical forms in the world. Tonight Angus Nicolson offers these complex pieces on the auditorium-friendlier smallpipes. Alongside, Margaret introduces songs on subjects grave (the Jacobite rebellions), spooky (cave monsters), and endearing (the love of cows), as well as harpist Ingrid Henderson’s repertoire of dirty limericks. Ingrid keeps to the stage as husband Iain MacFarlane comes on with enough Henderson siblings to merit quips about a family epidemic. Bandmates from his Blazin’ Fiddle days are in the audience, and the background hum contains as much Gaelic as English. “Feel free to dance and clap”, Iain grins “Don’t take your clothes off though”. And it’s pretty much impossible not to do just that (in your seat: the chairs at SAITS are snug) as we get a full rendition of the jigs, reels, sets, and airs from his new solo album. With the lavish sound of a squad of talent Iain is not being rhetorical when he says that “a solo album just means you pay”.  Mind you, one way to keep it local is to make your own, and Gallop to Callop is beautifully produced by his Old Laundry Productions, sitting in the grounds of his parents Glenfinnan Hotel. The title track is itself part of local lore: a tall tale of Navvies working on the beautiful Mallaig trainline. ‘Borrowing’ some local horses to speed the way to a dram at said Glenfinnan Hotel, they found their equestrian skills  no match for their steeds who quickly sent them to a watery end. We are luckier, for us the show ends riding high on some of the very best of current Scottish trad. (JR)


Turin Brakes & Hannah Fisher

O2 ABC, 27,1,2016

Whilst Turin Brakes never disavowed the ‘folk’ label that forms their credentials for a big-ticket event at Celtic Connections, it is an inexact descriptor. None of the contentedly nodding crowd look like folkies (though the same cannot be said of bassist Eddie Myer’s preposterous locks). This is the regular alt-gigs crowd of the early naughties, for whom Turin Brakes were a formative voice of awkward-anthems, summer-antics, and soaringly-melodic twilight saudade. The fans may be a bit more M&S-and-a-babysitter nowadays, but are clearly as delighted at the forthcoming release of seventh studio album Lost Property as the band are with the listening power of their faithful. It’s not every gig that so successfully achieves symbiosis of old and new: and the new tonight is openers The Hannah Fisher Band. She’s a kept face from recent tours with Idlewild, but Hannah is just breaking out on her own with debut EP Watching Time. Extending a long-standing collaboration with singer-songwriter Sorren MacLean, this is an indie-Celt sound that makes the most of her stunning voice. Combining toe-tapping beat with melancholic tinge, tunes like Until the Shadows stand defiantly with the fragility of highland communities, as all the best folk-songs ever did.  Turin Brakes setlist moves elegantly back and forth between fiercely loved classics – Painkiller, Future Boy, Slack – and the beautifully crafted new album –  Keep Me Around, 96, Lost Property, Jumpstart. Although buried half-way through the night, Fishing For a Dream stood out with the luminous assurance of a song played effortlessly for a decade, but nevertheless “dazzling all the time”. CC has an early curfew, so by just after 10 we are all heading home. Yet on a dreich night we’ve tucked in a warm glow of gladness, after all it really was “lovely to play a disco beat with the largest mirror ball in the world”. (JR) 


Admiral Fallow & Hannah Lou Clark

Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 30/01/2016

It’s difficult not to find yourself slightly awestruck when you step into Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket for the first time. A grand old room, steeped in history and with the original market frontages still hanging beneath the balcony that runs right round three sides of the hall, it’s worth a visit in and of itself. But on sold-out Saturday nights like this, with one of the city’s favourite outfits gracing the stage and a palpable crackle in the air it becomes a very special space in which to experience a show. Opening tonight, local singer-songwriter Hannah Lou Clarke brings an intense fragility to her performance that marks her out as a force for the future, even if she doesn’t quite get her deserved response from a crowd waiting to hear something they already know. Thankfully, Admiral Fallow deliver that in spades. Backed by slow-moving, largely black & white projections and delivering a brand of indie-folk that’s at least as distinguished by Kevin Brolly’s rambunctious clarinet as by Louis Abbott’s rugged guitar, they’re not quite your garden-variety Saturday superheroes. But, when showcasing such a broad setlist of established tunes and the aforementioned frontman’s easy, dry wit, they connect perfectly with the hometown faithful. Opening easy with Happened In The Fall and expanding through abstractly-titled nuggets like Subbuteo and The Paper Trench to a three-song encore of Liquor And Milk, a crowd-rousing Isn’t This Wold Enough and arms-aloft curtain-dropper Old Baloons it’s a show of not inconsiderable grandeur. If the whispers are to be believed this’ll be Admiral Fallow’s last show for a while. For the two-thousand-odd pouring out the door come lights up, though, their return can’t come fast enough. (SL) 


Gordie MacKeeman & His Rhythm Boys with JD and the Straight Shot

Oran Mor, Glasgow, 30,01,2016

Just occasionally you go to a gig that makes you furiously happy. It can be an already-beloved band or, as this evening, it can come as a joyous and unexpected surprise. Legs akimbo, with a long grin as infectious as the high-octane bluegrass streaming from his fiddle, Gordie MacKeeman is the kind of musician who brings all the good things in life sharply to focus. A night with him and his Rhythm Boys reminds you to love your family, be silly with your friends, learn from your elders, and always choose to dance like a crazy-legged fool. The gleefully carnivalesque opening set by JD and the Straight Shot formed a highly successful Ballyhoo to affairs, with this title track of their new album sitting in the middle of their set. In top-hat and crushed purple velvet jacket James Dolan artfully played the Fagin ringmaster to his visually patchwork company, whilst sylvan fiddler-singer Erin Slaver carried the soar of the tunes. Picking up the pace of the Americana, Gordie took over the stage with equal theatricality, breaking immediately into his signature kooky fleet-footed twist and tap. Whilst their music is razor-sharp it is ego-free, and for many a tune he fiddled in the background as the Rhythm Boys orbited the instruments and took turns to give texture up the front of stage. Befitting the title of their new album Laugh, Dance, and Sing, mischievous musical humour pervaded the set: a bear-sized, stubbly, and besuited banjo-player is tasked with an egg shaker, and there is a two-blokes-one-double-bass slap-off. Celtic Connections audiences are usually an appreciative crowd, so it was disappointing that a proportion of tonight’s pundits took the gig as a backing track for their conversations.  Nevertheless, infallibly polite the Canadians were generously glad to have us there, and though they’ve been winning plaudits all over the roots scene we are modestly asked to spread the word. It’s a word worth hollering: grab a ticket next time they are in town. You will have the time of your life. (JR)


Vieux Farka Touré & Moussu T e lei Jovents

Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, 31/01/2016

Somehow we’ve got to the end of a lavish fortnight of musical merry-making without yet covering any of the wonderful African artists who bring their roots to the new-folk melting-pot of Celtic Connections. Luckily tonight addresses this lacuna with the virtuoso Malian fingerstyle guitarist Vieux Farka Touré. Expectation is high amongst the guardianista crowd this evening. Tangible electricity ripples through the audience from the start, and they are not disappointed. Tying together the two acts is the seemingly tenuous theme of historical French authority and nationhood. Moussu T e lei Jovents light-hearted stage-antics are a filter for a nostalgic Occitan critique of industrial decline and anti-immigration politics in their home town near Marselha (Marseilles).  Their tightly-practiced and prop-driven pantomime is whimsical as well as waggish: the music a beat-driven slide-banjo steeped fusion of Caribbean percussion, 1930s café music, and rich multicultural influences washed up on the Provençal shore. They turn out to be the perfect warm up for the crowd, who implausibly respond with squawking enthusiasm to Tatou’s droll demands for seagull impersonations.  Vieux Farka Touré has a stage-presence that relies on no such capers. His set begins hypnotically: the whole band fully absorbed in the music they are creating; the rapturous and enraptured audience quite incidental.  Rapport is initiated at the fourth track, the viscerally experienced ‘Ali’, written for Touré’s internationally-acclaimed blues-guitarist father. This is music that moves you to your blood, resonating deep in the belly, and for this audience adds further grist to the mill of enthusiastic uncle-at-a-wedding dancing. Like the opening act, there is also political lament just below the surface and a call out for world-solidarity naturally goes down well with a Glasgow audience. Touré’s invitation unleashes the rest of the crowd who rise to their dancing feet, much to his chortling delight. From a quiet bubbling through a reverberating crescendo, audience joy this evening is a microcosm of all that is wonderful about Celtic Connections and sees out the festival in style. (JR) 


They Might Be Giants & BMX Bandits

O2 ABC, Glasgow, 31/01/2016

Talk about inspired booking. They Might Be Giant’s strongest celtic connection – as the band eloquently put it themselves – is that they’ve been invited to perform as one of the closing acts at 2016’s Celtic Connections; but their roadworn, high-energy geek-rock provides just the tonic for fatigued folk-festival goers to smash themselves across the finishing line. Having performed a 90-minute-odd “family set” this afternoon with house-lights on, plenty of seating available and songs about mischievous robots and colourful characters aplenty, they’d have been forgiven for phoning it in tonight. For the Brooklyn collective, though, getting to play crowds like this is more pleasure than chore and with house-lights off, chairs stowed back in their cupboards and just as many songs about mischievous robots and colourful characters, they crank out another 135 minutes like it ain’t no thing. Openers BMX Bandits are celebrating a 30th anniversary this year themselves and, though relatively short, the Bellshill crew’s set tonight still packs plenty of the jangling 60s-influence and guitar-rock punch that saw them on the rise three decades ago. It’d be wrong to think of TMBG in similarly nostalgic terms. Though front-duo John Flansburgh and John Linnell might seem a little more filled-out than the wiry geeks that ruled early MTV, their knowing sense of humour and prodigious output (“Top tip if you for a band:” chuckle the Johns, with tongues in cheek, “Don’t write a new song every week!”) remain as consistent as ever. From eponymous “first-demo track” They Might Be Giants through a colourful track listing that takes in every shade of weirdness from Doctor Worm to Your Racist Friend to a screwball cover of Destiny’s Child’s Bills Bills Bills (“We’re calling ourselves Destiny’s Child’s Child!” comes the quip), it’s a set that gets as many brains whirring and grins cracking as toes tapping. The songs drop so thick and fast that ubiquitous classic Birdhouse In Your Soul almost gets lost in the blur but by the time the band whirr through Particle Man and emerge for a second encore of Robot Parade (“We’re gonna’ play ‘til you’re exhausted and bored!”) there’s not a body in the building not stamping along and hollering their applause. A fitting end to a brilliantly eclectic couple of weeks’ music. Bravo Celtic Connections, bravo! (SL)

Words: Sam Law and Joanna Royle

Did you make it to Celtic Connections 2016? Let us know if you’ve attended any of the shows via @TicketmasterUK.

Related links:

Celtic Connections 2016: Part two

Celtic Connections 2016: Part one

Celtic Connections 2016: Part three