Kicking off on the 19 January 2017, Ticketmaster blogger Joanna Royle writes why she is looking forward to Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival this month.
Music festivals and January are uncommon bedfellows. Except in Glasgow, that is, where water-cooler laments about the dreich [Scottish dialect for “dreary or bleak”, in case don’t know. – Ed.] post-holiday malaise are being punctured by the glittering promise of sprawling musical extravaganza which will shortly engulf the city. A smorgasbord from fiddles to veena, roots to fusion, Celtic Connections prides itself on laying a lavish synergistic feast from across the musical spectrum and the globe.
“Spend a couple of magical hours here.”
In its 23rd year, basecamp is always the splendid Royal Concert Hall, where you can saunter straight out of work into the warm folky embrace of the nightly 5pm Danny Kyle Open Stage. Spend a couple of magical hours here getting a preview of all that is up and coming, for nothing more than the cost of your pint. At the weekends a poke around the Concert Hall smokes out music makers coming together in every suite, alcove, and broom cupboard.
Capacious though it is, Celtic Connections hosts a spread of artists so numerous they wouldn’t all get a seat at Headquarters roll-call. Luckily 19 additional venues, from the iconic east-end Barrowlands Ballroom to the cosy hipster basement of the Hug and Pint, take their share of the 300 gigs that make this otherwise chilly city a seductive proposition.
“The biggest names in modern folk.”
Bookending the whole shebang are some of the biggest names in modern folk. It’s worth observing that bringing together grand musical collaborations is something Celtic Connections does better than anyone else. For example The Usual Suspects of Celtic Colours, who debuted at the festival in 2003 are back again this year, as are the eccentric La Banda Europa, complete with hurdy-gurdys, bagpipes, and trombones, and the goliath of the festival club Treacherous Orchestra.
Both opening and closing events showcase similar grand partnerships. We kick off with Radio 2 darling Laura Marling, who only this week put out a stirring and wistful teaser track for her much-anticipated sixth album Semper Femina. Her music has evolved in her tender 26 years, but is always marked by a sense of spaciousness. It will be exciting to see how Kate St John’s ambitious arrangement has fitted this sound with the grandeur of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
As always, the fortnight will wrap up with the annual award-winning Transatlantic Sessions. A modest name for stellar event, this brings together the glitterati of contemporary trad and roots, and holds the hands of musical friendship across the Special Relationship. From this side of the pond luminaries such as Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker, Phil Cunningham, Eddie Reader, and Aly Bain, from the other a matching collection of musical greats under the direction of Jerry Douglas. But this thicket of excellence is a long way off yet; before then there are two weeks of the best in folk, world, indie, and Americana to enjoy.
“Even the most committed festival-goer need never hear a fiddle.”
It is undoubtedly true that for some of us Celtic Connections is an unabashed chance to indulgently revel in our love of the twiddle-dee: from up-and-coming sounds such as The Elephant Sessions and Hannah Fisher to seminal folk-rockers Fairport Convention who are turning 50 years young. But the festival has an arc so expansive that even the most committed festival-goer need never hear a fiddle from start to finish.
Looking for Afro-Cuban beats? Orchestra Baobab has you covered. Want some singer-songwriter chaps from closer to home? A wealth of Scottish talent including Pictish Trail, King Creosote and Mull Historical Society are on the ticket. Those of a more synth-pop bent are catered for in the smaller venues with performances from Aberfeldy and Modern Studies. For percussionists there’s the Issho Drummers as well as Celtic Connections exclusive Scottish-Indian collaboration between virtuoso talents Trilok Gurtu and Evelyn Glennie.
Consider taking a well-judged gamble on Hirda, a dialect opera about families, sex, and marriage (not necessarily in the correct order) on Shetland. Or if you’re looking for a familiar investment for your ticket price, there’s always an evening with Olivia Newton-John and friends (though there will be some fiddles at that one – from the masterful John McCusker Band).
“A place for encounters, friendship and collaborations.”
The transatlantic partnership is particularly important to Celtic Connections, with highlights this year including bluegrass from chart-toppers the Mark O’Connor Band and long-timers Special Consensus, and a railroad narrative collaboration between English protest folkser and American songwriter Billy Bragg and Joe Henry. For a unique and powerful Sunday evening St Paul & the Broken Bones will be found making a huge soul sound at the O2 ABC.
Nevertheless the American cousins are only one ingredient in the dish of world connections flavoured from the Celtic fringe. Particularly represented this year are musicians from Canada and India – marking significant anniversaries in their transition to statehood – and from Brazil as the 2017 international festival partner. Musical adventurers could do much worse than picking an artist from each.
Better still, pick a female artist in line with this year’s ‘inspirational women of music’ theme. To get you started try out two performers from musical dynasties: the soaring Quebecan vocalist Martha Wainwright and leading Veena player Dr Jayanthi Kumaresh. Follow it up with a night at the Grammy award-winning pop-sensation Roberta Sá whose Latin rhythms are guaranteed to put a samba in your step and a smile on your face. Celtic Connections, as beautifully expressed by Brazilian festival partners MIMO truly is “a place for encounters, friendship and collaborations.”
“The Celtric and the traditional are the mast of the festival ship.”
Whilst the Connections are important, the Celtic and the traditional are the mast of the festival ship, and year on year the festival draws back scene veterans and celebrities. For example Irish regulars Four Men and a Dog, who opened the very first Celtic Connections gig in 1994, are back again in the Concert Hall, as is nu-folk’s pretty boy superstar Seth Lakeman. The hall will also host a jubilant retrospective for the ‘acid-croft’ fast-fingers of Shooglenifty’s shaggy, beloved, and extraordinary Angus R Grant, whose death in 2016 was a blow for many in the folk community.
Sligo’s Eurovision contenders and Celtic Connections regulars Dervish have been setting the bar for trad excellence since the late 80s. They are playing the incomparably lovely Fruitmarket venue, whilst Eliza Carthy, who might rightly be credited for bringing the genre back into the mainstream, is taking the boards with her Wayward Band at the O2 ABC. The transcendental Gaelic voice of Julie Fowlis is always a highlight of the festival, where this year she is supporting country legend multi-Grammy Award winner Mary Chapin Carpenter in one of the many transatlantic connections.
Amongst the hottest tickets are relative newcomers Mànran, perhaps the first band since Runrig to have crossed Gaelic song into the mainstream. Supported by Highland and Islands supergroup regulars Blazin Fiddles and a tantalising preview before their main gig from Michigan roots group Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys, grabbing one of the few remaining Barrowland tickets for this opening night bash is highly recommended.
“More than just gigs.”
Nevertheless from conception the festival had more than just gigs. Perhaps you’ve always secretly thought yourself the next George Formby on the ukulele or a potential virtuoso on the spoons? Well there’s a workshop for that. Want to get your dance on? There’s a ceilidh for that. Prefer getting your exercise more sedately? How about a walking tour of the city’s folk roots. Feeling drouthy [Scottish dialect for thirsty – Ed.]? Good job Celtic Connections is collaborating with the National Whisky Festival, with talks and tasters of the national uisge beatha (water of life). More of a night owl? The festival club and late night sessions are a rowdy buffet of the day’s stars getting their jam on. I’m afraid the fashion show never made it past 1994 though.
For both Glaswegians and visitors this world-class eclectic mix is the all-important anti-hibernation kick off that sofa we need to defy this time of year. It is one of the jewels in the city crown; the evidence for Councillor McAveerty’s claim that Glasgow is “a city for music lovers”; the pull that makes the Dear Green Place a destination at a time when it is – let’s be honest – a drab brown place. It brings together unlikely audiences: grey perms alongside hipster beards and indie kids. It’s a warm heart in the friendliest city on earth. You should come. You should definitely come. I’ll see you there.
Check out tickets for some of the major Celtic Connections shows on Ticketmaster.co.uk.
Words by: Joanna Royle