The festival turned 25 in 2018.
The internet is full of ‘by the time you are 25’ lists. Most involving growing up, settling down, and remembering to floss. Whilst we can’t say anything about Celtic Connections’ dental habits, it is pretty clear that settling down is not on the agenda for this annual Glasgow music extravaganza which hit its quarter decade in 2018.
A festival of Connections
Over the years, what started as a hopeful project to get a bit of use out of Glasgow’s flagship Concert Hall during the dark and drear of winter has flourished into a fortnight-long city-wide takeover, covering 28 venues and delivering more than 350 gigs, workshops, sessions, and events. Nowadays the scope of the festival cambers increasingly towards the ‘Connections’, that make this a truly trans-Atlantic January romp.
If you wanted some Arabic Cuban flamenco gypsy-jazz, you might have checked out Canada’s Sultans of String or their similarly quixotic Quebecois hurdy-gurdy cousins Le Vent du Nord. There is always plenty of American bluegrass to enjoy, for example from The Railsplitters and Hayseed Dixie. And if your connections are South of the border right-on folk-punk both English old-schoolers the Levellers and front-burner Frank Turner delivered to ecstatic bouncing crowds.
With a Backbone of Trad
But significant anniversaries can also be a good time to go back to your roots, so this year Ticketmaster caught up on some of the iconic flag-bearers of the trad that has long formed the festival backbone. The final five days managed to cram in two more anniversaries in the business: 25 years for breathy Barnsley songbird Kate Rusby and a score for Bruce MacGregor’s fast-paced highlanders Blazin’ Fiddles. 23 years isn’t such a pleasingly rounded number, yet reflects the unparalleled woodwind talents of Michael McGoldrick which have paced the boards of all but two Celtic Connections festivals.
Both Rusby and McGoldrick have made their names as solo or collaborating artists – sometimes with each other – but this time they stepped out separately with court-like musical entourages which bulged their stages with sound. Alongside the customary range of fiddles, accordions, banjos and the like, Rusby has brought a moog, which she confidently believes will inspire the audience to some rapid ebaying.
Always at her wry best as a storyteller, we get the popular fables of valiant Sir Eglamore’s wrangle with a dragon, and Barnsley milk superhero Big Brave Bill. In between songs she treats us to a comical lucky-dip plastic bag of favourite gladrags from her musical history as prospective artifacts for a Barnsley Council ersatz Dollywood. Tonight, decked out like a pint-sized firework of sequined stars, Rusby nevertheless stole the show with the beautiful celestial-themed ballads Underneath the Stars and Who Will Sing Me Lullabys.
McGoldrick’s eponymous band includes a jazz set, adding a spicy edge of tonal colour and reflecting the importance of fusion projects throughout his career. Tonight there are tunes influenced by Eastern Europe, recent visits to Canada, collaborations with the soulful Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, and because his pal bought a viola. The flute is not an instrument renowned for attracting a rock-star fanbase, but if you make a name for yourself all over town like McGoldrick then you can pin down some hits. Freefalling, and the entirely brilliant Farewell to Whalley Range are rapturously received, and the crowd need minimum provocation to belt out “have a poppadum” at one James Brown inspired tune.
Of course the full band sound has always been key to Blazin Fiddles, and the amassed stage of old Blazers packed the Concert Hall with a litany of the finest trad talent in Scotland. Bruce McGregor is the lynchpin of this band-come-festival-come-project-to-save-highland-fiddle-music, but no Celtic Connections is complete without also seeing Anna Massie. In-between sets the two regale tales of diminutive Massie tied to a child’s art easel in an unpredictable 50 shades re-enactment; arm-wrestling competitions in the Caley in Beauly; and convoluted explanations of why the more dapper Blazers have shown up in other peoples shoes.
Any review of Blazin Fiddles worth its salt talks about the joyous, heart-lifting, life-affirming, foot-stomping energy of a night in their company: yet to say otherwise would be to entirely miss the point. From the tear-jerkingly bonny Annie’s Waltz, to sets of Strathspeys which we’re told “like the people of the area are short and very aggressive”, to the lightening-speed reels which made their name, it was a blazin night.
Neo-trad for the Millennial Generation
Celtic Connections is nothing if not the platform for a living tradition, and alongside the veterans were the fresh shoots, fusing reels with jazz, funk, and electronica, offering neo-trad for the millennial generation.
Proud Dubliner and troubadour Aoife Scott, who singing career plot pivots on a disappointing jam sandwich, may come from illustrious musical lineage but has claimed that tradition for her own. Delighted by the responsive Concert Hall, Aoife gleefully has us all welcome her again. Her glee and her storytelling make her a lovely match for headliner Kate Rusby. Scott may only just have released her critically acclaimed first album, but her voice has a maturity that is reminiscent of both the English singer and Scotland’s own beloved Eddi Reader. Nevertheless her song-writing in singalongs such as Wild Atlantic Way and Wondering Where The Lions Are have a light syncopated alt-folk touch that situate her not only in her beloved Ireland, but also the current generation of trad.
Notify and Elephant Sessions are two handsome collections of fellas from Ireland and Scotland respectively, marshalling concertinas and mandolins into maximum high-octane bombast. Both quintets owe some debt to trailblazers in acid-croft such as Croft No5 who came out of retirement for this year’s Celtic Connections, but both are cutting new musical ground.
A late-night start and standing venue are not the only reasons these award-winning groups are attracted a younger crowd: the night was noisy, fast, raw, and exciting. The elaborate light show reinforced the rock charm of bands who have come a long way in a short time. Elephant Sessions entered the stage like the proper Rolling Stone stars they have become, and there is no taking notes on this or that tune, as sweat drips down the back amidst the swirling vaulting Old Fruitmarket crowd.
On the closing night over at the Concert Hall the seated folks were enjoying the annual smorgasbord of brilliance that is the Transatlantic Sessions, but those of us who still had legs to jump on at the end of the fortnight, were in the ABC with Manran whose meteoric rise over the past seven years has put Gaelic-rock back into the mainstream of Scottish music.
A night with Manran really sums up everything that Celtic Connections has grown to be: people of all ages and places experiencing so-called “traditional” music as their own music. Ewen Henderson’s puirt à beul isn’t some arcane esoteric form: it is music to dance to. Sets of jigs and reels are a date night. You don’t need to understand the Gaelic to sing along. As the pioneers of Scottish Folk-Rock, and previous Celtic Connections performers Runrig finally hang up their guitars this summer, they can surely be confident they are handing over the tradition to safe musical hands.
After record breaking sales, with 130,000 people at gigs this year, you might think Celtic Connections has some scope for complacency, but you’ll find no such thing from Artistic Director Donald Shaw.
A man whose musical CV is exhausting just to look at, this founding member of Capercaillie – a band who might legitimately be credited with bringing folk-fusion into the public consciousness – made time in his schedule of running the whole shebang to get in some tunes with old friends. We saw him, minus his signature accordion, on the keyboards alongside warhorse Mike McGoldrick.
With new government funding secured for next year, Shaw is full of plans to expand time and financial investment into the special collaborations and commissions that have already launched a number of folk careers and partnerships from Celtic Connections. With such tantalising promises we look forward to the musical fireworks that get lit over the next quarter century, from the banks of the wintery Clyde.
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Words by Joanna Royle