2100 artists. 300 events. 20 venues. 1 festival.
Celtic Connections has grown, since its humble inception back in 1994, into not only the UK’s largest winter event of its kind, but also one of the world’s best annual exhibitions of Celtic, country, and world folk music.
Lighting up Glasgow during in the middle of January’s dreary midwinter darkness, it’s an event Scotland’s largest city has wholeheartedly embraced. From the grand acoustics of the city’s main Royal Concert Hall to the late-night cheer of the various festival clubs, and from boot-stomping twiddly-dee to local experimental electro, there’s something on offer for every discerning music fan.
In the first of three reports from the festival frontline, Joanna Royle and Sam Law delve into the revelations, one-off collaborations and historic returns to bring you the best of Celtic Connections 2016.
Old Blind Dogs, with Socks In The Frying Pan
The Mitchell Library & Theatre, 16/01/2016
It’s the first weekend of Celtic Connections and, as if to get into the wintry swing of things, Glasgow has dumped a few inches of still-gleaming snow in front of the copper-domed Edwardian grandeur that is the Mitchell Library and Theatre. Still, there’s nothing cold about a couple of ebullient hours with veteran outfit Old Blind Dogs and up and coming County Clare lot, but Socks In The Frying Pan. Tonight might sport a conspicuously silver-haired crowd, but Socks In The Frying Pan don’t hold back. Steeped in traditional Irish music, the trio give the impression that they don’t need an audience to have fun. You’d have a hard heart not to be stamping along, though, and it’s well worth checking out their implausibly-titled recent second album, Return of the Giant Sock Monsters from Outer Space. For this reviewer, though, the night had to belong to Old Blind Dogs. As a callow fresher in 1997 I wisely invested my microscopic entertainment budget on a solitary Celtic Connections ticket to catch an earlier lineup of the Aberdonian group. Tonight, in their capable hands, the theatre setting fell away, and we delighted in a fulgent set of tunes, ballads, and banter as from the back bar of a folk club. There were cracking sing-alongs, some from home (Braw Sailin’: apparently the pinnacle of Doric romance since “noone dies and everyone hates each other”); some giving a Celtic-tinge to other traditions (Copper Kettle: coming with a health warning about hair-related risks posed by brewing moonshine); some from the prodigious in-house talent (Ali Hutton’s Desperate Fishwives); and yet others that draw in recent trad songsmiths (Davie Robertson’s Star O’ The Bar). Talking of drawing folks in, Rory Campbell and Findlay MacDonald joined their former bandmates for some dazzling whistle-offs to mark this silver-ish anniversary gig. Not to be outdone, Fraser Stone delivered a fierce drum-solo in the closing tunes. As the night wraps up with the classic MacPherson’s Rant, it’s clear that under the steady influence of Jonny Hardy Old Blind Dogs just don’t get, well… old. (JR)
Errors, with Bdy Prts
O2 ABC, 16/01/2016
“We’re from Scotland,” grins hirsute Errors main man Stephen Livingstone part way through tonight’s packed-out show downstairs at the ABC, “that means we’re allowed to play at Celtic Connections!” With a hip crowd approximately 500% “cooler” than any other on this opening weekend and a brand of pulsing, electro-indie post-rock that’s earned them a place on Mogwai’s renowned Rock Action label, the explanation of how they’ve ended up playing opening weekend at this sprawling folk celebration might be warranted. But as bannermen for the future of Scottish music, they undeniably deserve a place. Likewise, openers Bdy Prts. Colourfully dressed local duo Jill O’Sullivan and Jenny Reeve open proceedings frenetically; a blast of funk-infused guitar and driving harmonies inspiring dance moves a breed apart from elsewhere in the city. Built from looped synths, soaring vocals and the odd scrapbook sample, Errors aren’t so much the sort of electro outfit you dance do as one you fall into. A repetitive, low-key first half to the set seems to wear on the uninitiated in the crowd, but there’s a shapeshifting euphoria to the latter. It’s highlighted by the moment they get a randomer on to fiddle the effects on the climactic Mr Milk. Daring. Eccentric. Defiantly, contemporarily Scottish. (SL)
Oysters 3, with Granny Green Trio
Tron Theatre, 17/01/2016
Only at Celtic Connections can you find yourself on a Sunday night in a theatre listening to beatboxing on a tuba. Fact. Opening for the pared-down heart of Oysterband, the Granny Green Trio are musical mavericks. Whether you’d say these Royal Conservatoire grads are bringing brass to folk music, or folk to classical brass isn’t clear, especially once they stir up reels by Mariearad Green with a smattering of New Orleans and some demanding multiphonics (that’s singing into said tuba, to you or me). What is clear is that they were well deserving of last year’s Danny Kyle Newcomers award, exemplifying the way that Celtic Connections draws together all things unique and vivid in the living tradition.
The Oysterband have been at the Shouting End of Life, so to speak, since I was born. I know this because they tell me as much, when founder members John Jones, Alan Prosser and Ian Telfer take the stage in their new experimental guise as Oysters 3 for a storytellers evening of rambling yarns and musical annals. I’m easily seduced by the conceit of a chronology, particularly when it sculpts the “magic, mystery and mayhem of folk music that became our underground”. The story is one of social justice (1982’s feminist ghost Oxford Girl “counterbalancing 1000 years of folk song history” and, of course, Maggie Thatcher’s pit closures in Another Quiet Night in England), and of bizarre escapades (misguidedly relinquishing their worldly goods, and a getaway car, to an unscrupulous East German chap named George). Not that they let anything so mundane as narrative continuity get in the way of doing a favourite turn. Nefarious George was the prelude to Hal-an-Tow, the Cornish May song about Robin Hood and the Spanish Armada (obviously) which Oysterband have made into a sing-along classic. And after one or two years in the business John Jones is a master at shepherding audience participation, and he played us like the fiddle through the political anger of All That Way For This, and the heartachingly beautiful unamplified final encore I Leave These Songs With You. I’m certain guest banjoist Leonard Podolak of The Duhks was not the only once-teen in the room who was swayed to the folk-side by the passion, black leather jackets, and (gasp) drums, of the still-incandescent Oysters. (JR)
Siobhan Wilson & Friends, with Calum Ingram
St Andrew’s In The Square, 17/01/2016
With twinkling fairy-lights wrapped around its grand pillars and plain white sheets draped around the stage like some sort of quasi-Lenten acknowledgement of the building’s religious past, SAITS is a sort of quintessential Celtic Connections venue. Historic. Ornate. A meeting of upper-class grandeur and open accessibility. It’s packed tonight for this appearance from remarkably young (she’s still in her twenties) but highly-rated singer-songwriter Siobhan Wilson. First up on an impressive supporting cast, though, is US-based Scots singer-songwriter Calum Ingram who opens the show strumming away on an upright-bass and loosening up a stiff-looking crowd with winning, road-worn charm and an intriguing blues/country/folk/Americana fusion. An altogether more delicate, thoughtful proposition, Wilson starts in near-silence and builds towards the flighty – but truly impressive – Nina Simone/Eddi Reader-influenced vocal heights of songs like Dear God. Welcoming on husky newcomer Adam Holmes and provincial favourite Emma Pollock, she’s quick to acknowledge that she’s taking the opportunity to fill out this full-length show with some of her favourite artists, and run-throughs of Pollock’s new tunes Cannot Keep A Secret and Dark Skies fully validates that decision. Even still, it’s the appearance of Idlewild frontman (and prolific folkie) Roddy Woomble that most thrills; his earthen epic I Came In From The Mountain and almost-bashful contribution to Wilson’s hit All Dressed Up creating one of the festival’s most brilliantly-unique moments. (SL)
Celtic Connections 2016 continues until 31 January, get full event details and book now at Ticketmaster.co.uk.
Check back for the next instalment of our Celtic Connections review next week, and let us know if you’ve attended any of the shows via @TicketmasterUK.