Review: The first week at Celtic Connections 2017

With Glasgow’s varied Celtic Connections Festival up and running, guest bloggers Joanna Royle & Sam Law run us through the first week of shows.

Friday 20 January 2017

Where could be more iconic to begin the biggest winter festival in Europe than the Barrowlands? Playing this former ballroom, with its distinctive neon façade, is the dream of every aspiring musician but it’s familiar ground to Manran, who first stalked its distinctive sprung floor just five years into their trajectory to folk stardom. Nevertheless there are not many nights in the Barrowlands where the headline opening to rapturous applause is a solo bagpipe.

It’s a packed and super enthusiastic crowd, from young regulars on the gig scene to the silver heads of the Celtic Connections faithful, mixed in with an unlikely contingent of screaming female fans with glitter makeup and a dram in them. Manran are a smart bunch of lads, and the boyband fandom doesn’t seem so incongruous for their chiselled jaws and red trousers, looking for all the world like they are from the London trading floor rather than scattered Scottish towns. Looks can be deceptive though. They get painted as Gaelic-rock inheritors of Runrig’s mantle, but Manran’s music is more traditional than these anthemic 80s and 90s predecessors.

With a full spread of pipes, whistles, accordion, and fiddle, this is no guitar folk-rock. The sets are fast and furious and technically brilliant, drawing heavily on the new album An Da La, officially released today, though it is clear that many of the audience have been loving the pre-release for some weeks. The standout tune of the evening, however, comes from their eponymous 2011 debut album. Puirt showcases Ewen Henderson’s impressive mastery of the rapid puirt a beul scat singing technique, historically used for dancing. And dance we did, the room bouncing us out into the cold night, exhausted and elated.

Warming up for them, and for their own sold-out show the next day, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys are the kind of bluesy grove that gets you at the knees. It’s early but the crowd is already ready to be delighted, and we are. Following them, nothing makes a night seem warmer than Blazin Fiddles. Bruce MacGregor’s highlands and islands supergroup – self-described as a “juxtaposition between Viking goddesses and highland trolls” – reliably deliver their acclaimed mix of energetic tunes and cheeky anecdotes.

The Cambridge Caravan Catastrophe, a debauched tale of inadvertently inviting all of Cambridge folk festival back to an RV for a ceilidh, makes it sound like a night out with the Fiddles is always a party. And no matter that the crowd was eager for the headline, we could have continued to party with them for as long as their hospitality lasted.

Meanwhile on the better side of town Pictish Trail pack out the Oran Mor, a converted church painted by visionary novelist-artist Alasdair Gray and beloved of the chattering classes. Johnny Lynch lives on the remote community-owned Isle of Eigg nowadays, but the witty, brightly hatted, richly bearded, wonk-popper is a relatively local chap, and the West-End crowd have turned out in force. It’s a quipster, trickster sort of night, with unconventional dance-alongs alongside shoe-gazing synth-indie. Gleefully hiding behind their instruments before popping up for encore to a delighted crowd, Pictish Trail wind up the first night of Celtic Connections on a high.

Mànran - An Dà Là

Saturday 21 January 2017

In between gig nights we popped into the Danny Kyle Open Stage for a sly shandy and a peak at some of the varied up and coming talent on the folk scene. Always packed at the weekend, the five-tune slots are in fierce demand. Unfortunately for The Deadly Winters, an Edinburgh folk-pop line-up who had rightly won their stage-place, a fire alarm sent the audience out to loiter on the elegant but chilly circular Concert Hall steps. For those of us who were taken with the brief glimpse of their sunny, radio-friendly sound, a more meaningful listen can be had by laying hands on their EP Table in the Corner.

The Deadly Winters - Table In The Corner

Sunday 22 January 2017

In winter, Sundays are for bracing family walks and a hearty roast at your Ma’s. Fitting, then, that family was the unifying theme tonight. “Not just blood family” as the Wildwood Kin lassies point out, “but the people who build you up and support you when you need it most”. Well on the way to having their first album out, this young Devon trio of sylvan cousins, have been singing astonishing close harmonies since they were wee.

Since finishing school and striking out professionally they rapidly turned heads in the musical world. It’s easy to see how the stirring ‘Warrior Daughter’ has been picked up by Radio 2, where they recently won the prestigious Bob Harris Emerging Artist award. They’ve also caught the eye of fellow West Country folk heavyweight Seth Lakeman, who brought them on board for his recent album Ballads of the Broken Few.

Now a father of three, Seth – and his fanbase – are more sedate than the glory years of the mid-naughties when he broke high-octane trad into the mainstream. New songs are about his wife, his kids, and his love, hopes and dreams for them both. The ambrosial voices of Wildwood offer an elegant counterpoint to Lakeman’s earthy sound, and the music is sweeter, tender, more whimsical. Perhaps his audience are too, as they resist encouragement to dancing on a school night.

As every good folkie should be able to, in Portrait of my Wife Lakeman commanded the singing of a 400 strong room without a mic (and, in an amusing episode, temporarily without recollection of the words). But it was the second half of the gig, which returned to beloved classics about hard-done-to sea ghosts, hard-done-to miners, accidental murders and other hearty themes, that had the crowd.

We who had been to the packed sweaty standing gigs of a decade ago loved Lady of the Sea and The Colliers no less for the polite, perfectly-acoustic, seated venue. And for all that it was quiet family night out, the ecstatic calls for encores predictable exceeded anything else from the weekend.

Seth Lakeman - Lady Of The Sea (Hear Her Calling)

Tuesday 24 January 2017

One of Celtic Connections 2017’s flagship shows, the first night of Fairport Convention’s landmark 50:50 @ 50 tour finds the stunning Fruitmarket packed – quite literally – to the rafters with an excitably multi-generational crowd. The English folk-rock elder statesmen might be down to their last founding member – the irrepressible Simon Nicol – but with a lineup that’s remained steadfast since 1998, there’s no lack of history about this fiftieth anniversary celebration.

Old folk hands Steve Tilston & Jez Lowe get the pints flowing early-on; their rambunctious trad-folk and world weary anecdotes (Jez introduces Old Bones as “An anti-war song so old I can’t remember which war I was against!”) full of easy charm – even if their scabrous appraisal of Nigel Farage, and the spelling errors that accompanied his stateside visit (“He’s set to be Donald Trump’s new Anal-cist – that’s English for a pain in the a*s!”), leave a few of their ageing fanbase shifting uneasily in their seats.

There’s nothing uneasy about the headliners, of course. Sitting with their loyal followers as comfortably as a pair of worn-in slippers, even newer tracks like Myths And Heroes and Devil’s Work (“It’s about DIY!” comes the quip) were never going to fail.

It’s the classics, though, like Crazy Man Michael (“Back in 1969 we wrote this as a new song that was supposed to sound like a traditional one,” explains Nicol. “By 2017, it’s become just that!”), The Hiring Fair and Meet on The Ledge that deliver the warm, nostalgic glow that most here have turned up to soak-in.

There’s an irony tonight, in that Fairport’s old contemporaries Black Sabbath are signing off with their final Scottish show just a mile down the road after 49 years in the game. After 50, Fairport – by comparison – have the look of musicians who’re, once again, just getting started.

Crazy Man Michael - Fairport Convention [Audio]

Celtic Connections continues across Glasgow until the 5 February 2017. Grab tickets to individual shows through