Review: The final weekend at Celtic Connections

With Glasgow’s varied Celtic Connections Festival done and dusted for another year, guest bloggers Joanna Royle & Sam Law run us through the final weekend.

Tuesday 31st January

There’s always a gig at Celtic Connections that makes you feel proper glad-to-be-alive sunshiney happy. This year it was an unexpected transatlantic pairing between local absolute newcomers Quick, and veteran country gents Special Consensus. Quick by name and nature have had a spectacular twelve months. Entering the Danny Kyle Open Stage on something of a whim (“it was a 20 mins set and we knew three songs”) they smashed the competition on a first outing. Despite being a band that met at a university singing course, this pop-folk trio dodge the bullet of being massively pretentious, and instead are just hugely listenable and likeable.

The tightness of their sound and stage confidence belies their newness as a band. Not least in the gleeful juxtaposition of a-cappella harmonies with the story of Crazy Grace: a short gospel number which tells the tale of guitarist Alex Hynes’ receiving an unusual and secretive piece of artwork from a young aspirant illuminatus. With their first EP This I Know scheduled for release later this month, it is impossible to resist the terrible, but accurate, quip that this young group are certain to be Quick to make their mark.

Special Consensus may have been on the scene since the opening of Stonehenge (allegedly!), but the mellowing of experience shows only in perfectly polished charm. Musically this is bluegrass at its sharpest, tightest, merriest, at times bluesiest, a sound perfectly self-assured whether extemporising on Blue Skies, going back to Americana’s gospel roots in Jesus is my Rock, or offering straight country tribute to the great John Denver in Wild Montana Skies.

Obviously with a 40-year catalogue to draw on (“though of course I was twelve when we started” points out founding father Greg Cahill), it would be misleading to draw attention only to the ways that Special Consensus knot themselves into the community of roots music. Rattling through tunes from all stages of their life as a band, culminates in a finger-flying rendition of their 2012 Grammy nominated title track from Scratch Gravel Road.

Yet in the end it is not the prodigious talent, the infectious energy, or the eclectic scope of their set list that leaves the night aglow. Rather it is the convivial banter of a group of pals who know what it takes to be a band: often scattered, occasionally together (“in fact we practiced all the way here – we were in different cars”), delighting in making music and nonsense together, and committed to drawing the audience into their persiflage.

Special Consensus - "Wild Montana Skies"

Friday 3rd February

Like Noah’s Arc, we rounded up the festival two by two by two. Two spectacular converted church venues – St Andrews in the Square and the recently renovated St Lukes – over two nights, each showcasing two twos of adroit musical storytellers. The weekend’s acts are a well-matched set: the duos weaving different tapestries of light and shade, each offering songwriting that draws the narrative and heartbreak traditions of either side of the Atlantic.

For raw emotion that leaves nowhere to hide, Ayr locals Bella and the Bear bring a unique poignancy to the sometimes safe-space of Celtic Connections. Lauren Gilmour has a tincture of early-Dido in her strapping sweet-jagged sound, but that likeness doesn’t get close to describing the visceral speculum effect of hearing your awkward moments and four-sheets-to-the-wind pub debates reflected back in song.

Interspersed with spoken word poetry that grabs by the gullet and tugs on every breakup wound that ever kept you sore, the answerphone message in Haunt (from their Still Cold EP) is the stand-out moment of the evening. Closely on its heels is Skeleton (A Girl Called Bella EP), which teaches us not to judge a book by its cover, is similarly corporeal in its grip. Stuart and Lauren are smashing the awards circuit currently, including winning last year’s Danny Kyle Open Stage, and as the lights go up and we are left vertiginously dizzy headed, it is clear to see why.

Our headliners tonight Lewis and Leigh are also deservedly securing accolades, taking the stage directly from a night of success for their superb debut album Ghost at the inaugural UK Americana Awards. Tongue-in-cheek Al Lewis and Alva Leigh jauntily remind us of the spurious links between their Wales and Mississippi homelands, before cascading into a double-bill of There is a Light and Rubble that gainsay their self-deprecation, telling the haunting stories of two economically wracked communities.

Giving no time for pounding hearts to recover from the warm-up act, the lament of Losing Time and disconsolate dreaminess of Whiskey and Wine continue to take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster that is only made more intense by their wistful melodic sound. Of course it helps that Lewis and Leigh are simply lovely: Alva reminds the crowd that “Celtic Connections is a really special festival. Glasgow is so spoilt”. And tonight we are bound to agree.

Lewis & Leigh - There is a Light [OFFICIAL VIDEO]

Saturday 4th February

One of the benefits of having Celtic Connections in January is that it offers a perfect rendezvous for the reinvigorated post-Christmas online dating market. Dotted around this evening’s gig, packed in amongst the manbuns and dad-rockers, are a few lucky recipients of a successful right swipes. A relatively safe first date choice, JohnnySwim and Shovels and Rope are one of the more mainstream offerings on the festival’s diverse line up. And what could be more promising for romance than a pair of married couples with kiddies asleep in the tour van? As Cary Ann Hearst quips to the crowd: “there’s a new thing in rock and roll; it’s not sex and drugs, it’s getting married and having babies”.

First up, JohnnySwim’s Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez blend Nashville charisma and bluesy voices with a solid pace and a poppier, anthemic sound. A couple who met at church, their gospel roots show through, enriching their Radio 2 friendly love songs.

Following on, Shovels and Rope are a more overtly political pairing. The rollicking hoedown Gasoline addresses the devastating socio-environmental effects of war; the swampy New Orleans sounding Evil tells tales of social misfits; and amidst civic turbulence Save the World is as much injunction as audience entertainment.

Yet this is no hanky-wringing, special snowflake affair. It is brash and able foot-stomping that reminds you to hear people’s stories and stand alongside them. And in the straight country of St Anne’s Parade Shovels and Rope cheer that amidst the quaggy mishaps of life, “I need more fingers to count the ones I love”. Mike Trent’s rusty cold-riddled voice could have been one of those quaggy mishaps, but like the song it doesn’t put the slightest dampener on their jubilant fans. “We have the best jobs. You can’t get these jobs”, he grins amid the cheers, as they fittingly wrap up the night with much-loved gritty musical wayfaring story Birmingham. As tonight’s prospective sweethearts know, the road to happiness is often potholed, but with music like this it is a journey worth taking.

Across in the City Halls’ recital room, Luke Daniels delivers his Revolve & Rotate performance to an intimate, but enraptured audience. A BBC music award winner – and former member of the Riverdance band – he delivers arguably the most ‘different’ performance of a jaw-droppingly eclectic festival line-up. Having reverse-engineered the archaic Victorian technology, he’s produced the first compositions for the Polyphon in 132 years and his combination of clockwork tinkle, drum-tight guitar and keyboard work from Daniels himself and a sporadic harp accompaniment deliver a momentary respite from the stomping, high-energy madness of Celtic Connections’ climactic weekend.

Shovels & Rope - Birmingham (Official Music Video)

Sunday 5th February

So there’s the rest and then there’s the best. Which, in time honoured custom, Celtic Connections saves for last. A double bill evening of BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year and the ultimate folk/roots showcase the Transaltantic Sessions is uniquely glittering line-up of expertise to draw the festival to a close.

Just half a dozen young folks get to the final of the coveted Hands Up for Trad prize, and unusually this year these include three vocalists (Ella Munro, Kim Carnie, Iona Fyfe) alongside talent on fiddle (Charlie Stewart), accordion (Grant McFarlane), and bagpipes (Dougie McCance). Earlier in the festival at an audience with Karine Polwart and Aziza Brahmin, these feminist songwriters spoke movingly about the role of women as bearers of song in the transmission of culture. Their words seemed prescient as tonight’s line-up splits voices and instrumentalists along gendered lines. It is natural to gravitate to the music you love, and the stories and sing-along opportunities offered by the three female singers tugged us in.

The prize is awarded for both technical and performance skills, so it couldn’t help but raise a smile when Ella Munro chanced her arm inviting audience participation on the grounds that “flattery is the best approach to this sort of thing I’m led to believe”. For the musicians Young Trad is more than a competition: it is a process of workshops, training, collaboration and performance opportunities. And whilst Charlie Stewart (of previously reviewed Elephant Sessions) walks away with the gong, all these exceptional performers have deservedly won another chunk of distance in their professional lives.

The talent showcased at Celtic Connections is habitually breathtaking, but as always the Transatlantic Sessions are in a league of their own. A touring extravaganza that transitions the festival out of Glasgow and off (under the blessing of the BBC) to the rest of the UK, the night is basically a ceilidh of all your folk/roots heroes doing reliably excellent party pieces. As you might expect at a ceilidh there’s a bit of this (Celtic trad) a bit of that (Americana) and then we all swing for the last eight, in some glorious houseband jigs and reels.

Like many amongst the Celtic Connections faithful a night simply comprising Aly Bain, Mike McGoldrick, Phil Cunningham, and John McCusker would be worth a hullabaloo. Add in national treasure Eddi Reader, Irish kinsfolk and former Solas members, John Doyle and Karan Casey (“I love coming to Glasgow, you are even a tiny bit more miserable than us!”), and stage left is replete with native brilliance. Meanwhile stage right mirrors tribe-fiddle with tribe-banjo under the direction of lap guitar genius Jerry Douglas, filling out the houseband as usual with Russ Barenberg, Donald Shaw, Danny Thompson and James MacKintosh.

Many of tonight’s special guests bring the gamut of Stateside roots sounds to the shindig. Jim Lauderdale and John Paul White each deliver their own brand of dapper and heartbreak, giving John Doyle and Karan Casey an Americana run for their money on the melancholic and dejected end of folk. Tift Merritt makes a valiant attempt to keep up, but she is far too adorably infectious a Duracell bunny to really pull off the sad song, and it’s the 80s power ballad sound of Good Hearted Man that fits the big sound that belts out of her tiny frame. Even Edinburgh’s Phil Cunningham has a stab at the tear-jerker momentum with Irish Beauty (“it sounds quite sad but I wasn’t sad when I wrote it” he protests).

The Transatlantic Sessions are like a whole festival in a zip-file: the only night with something as civilised as an interval. Nevertheless amidst the kaleidoscope of slow and sad, fast and frenzied, there were, perhaps, three songs conspicuous for bring together the riches of this musical assortment at the end of Celtic Connections. Taken in reverse order, the soaring voice of Eddi Reader leading Boo Hewerdine’s long-standing favourite Hummingbird was an utterly uplifting close to the night.

Just before the half-time whistle, second place goes to John Paul, Jim, Tift, Karan and Eddi’s spine-tinglingly elegiac rendering of Desperadoes Waiting for a Train, the classic tale of an unlikely cross-generational friendship, in memory of Guy Clark who passed last year. But ultimately it is Waterbound, Dirk Powell’s haunting roots tribute to his thwarted musician steel worker grandfather, bewitched by Mike McGoldrick’s whistles, that we take into the frosty night to keep us going until next year.

Eddi Reader - Hummingbird - Transatlantic Sessions - Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 5th February 2017

Thank you Celtic Connections: it’s been a wonderful, jam-packed, comely, exciting fortnight. And now it’s time to get reacquainted with our sofas, and wait it out for the onset of Spring.