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Celtic Connections 2016 Review

February 8, 2016

Floods, Gales & Points Failures – Celtic Connections 2016 – An Epic Adventure

PART ONE

My 2016 trip to Celtic Connection began pretty much as usual, with a train trip through the snow around Crianlarich to Glasgow. After a catch-up with my generous hosts, it was time for the musical mayhem to begin.

The Danny Kyle Open Stage was my first port of call and was, as ever, a mixed bag. Keith Meisner deserves a mention for his song made up of Bill McLaren commentary lines. I take very brief notes at these sessions and for the band Quick, I used the word “excellent” twice in one line. They were excellent. Three-part harmony singing with guitar and mandolin, their set was great.

My first proper event was “Music From the Machair” at the Old Fruitmarket. This was a show based on the music and musicians from North and South Uist and Benbecula. It was in two parts with the first part showcasing the talented youngsters, many of whom attend the college there. The second half featured more established acts and I have to say the youngsters probably stole the show. I enjoyed hearing Daimh singer Ellen MacDonald live for the first time and Marie MacInnes was also very good. The highlight of the second half was the sets by Canadian duo Rodney & Colin MacDonald who lifted the proceedings to new heights. The main plaudits though, go to some of the first half performances.  The singing of Kaitlin Ross was lovely and the piece by Ross Hull & Cameron Grant was excellent.

Although the early start to the day was beginning to have an effect, I made my way to the Art School and the Festival Club and it was a fine mixture of acts. The Uist/Benbecula connection continued with Eabhal the first act I saw. They were very good as they always are. Complete change next with the superb guitar playing and singing from Moh! Kouyate from Guinea. It was sensational. Another complete change followed with Jason Singh, Giuliano Modarelli and Rahul Ravindran producing a stonking set of beatboxing and acoustic madness. It was a great way to end day one.

Day two started with Ronnie Browne In Conversation at the City of Music Studio. The Corries were probably the main reason I picked up a guitar in the first place so I was delighted to be attending. It turned out to be a fascinating and emotional event filled with great stories and jokes.

Open Stage time again and it produced a couple of excellent sets. Madame Tsunami, from New Zealand via Aberdeen, were very good but the best of the day was the Meadows Family from Wales. A very talented family, swapping instruments at the drop of a hat and performing a good mixture of original and traditional songs and tunes.

Off to St Andrews in the Square for the main concert of the day. The support act were Open Stage winners from last year, Pons Aelius. They were superb with a crackling set of tunes, played with passion and a sense of fun. Highly enjoyable.

Tim O’Brien had the unenviable task of following that but he did so with consummate ease. A great set of songs, accompanied by Arty MacGlynn on guitar and jokes, and I could have listened to Tim all night. Great performer.

My first trip to the Drygate Brewery for the Late Night Sessions was next on the agenda. The venue was lovely but, although it was handy enough from St Andrews Square, it is a bit out of the loop of CC events. Angela Durkin and Debbie Garvey were first up and their set of tunes was very good. Next up were local band Dosca and their set was a cracker. Another local singer/songwriter, Jo Mango, was next and her songs were enjoyable. The wonderful guitar playing of Elliot Morris was next and by then it was time to face the long walk home.

Day three began with an event called Strathspey & Surreal and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this experimental program. It turned out to be very good indeed. Four separate new pieces of fiddle music written by Aiden O’Rourke, Jen Austin, Shona Mooney and Simon Thoumire, and played by as fine an array of fiddlers as you are ever likely to see onstage together, this show was uplifting and superbly well played.

Down to the Open stage next and it was a very good one with the show being stolen by the excellent country songs of the Jennifer Ewan Band.

My next concert, by the Urban Teuchtars, had proved so popular that it had been moved from the Piping Centre to the much larger MacKintosh Church. A great idea except for one, small thing. How can you have a concert for and by Teuchtars in a venue that only sells non-alcoholic beer!  Despite this major glitch, it was a memorable evening. From the opening “When I Came Up To Glasgow First” to the encore with Cahall McConnell from the Boys of the Lough, this was a concert that sparkled with talent and charm. Kathleen and Sineag were in fine voice, as was Seonaidh MacIntyre on his solo. The tune sets got the feet tapping and made the audience forget about the lack of a bar. Almost.

Time to hop on a random bus and then take the long walk to the Drygate for the Late Night Sessions and it turned out to be a waste of a bus fare. Too many tickets sold, too many people standing, talking and ignoring the music. I struggled through the seemingly lovely sets by the Feis Rois Ceilidh Trail and the Small Glories before I gave up and headed home. I think I can safely say I will not be taking that long walk again

The next day started with a return to the Strathclyde Suite for a New Voices concert by Ewan Robertson of Breabach fame. This piece, entitled Transitions, was based on the Celtman Extreme Triathlon. Superb music and songs, beautifully backed by some stunning video footage, this was one of the best things I have ever seen at Celtic Connections.  A stellar cast of musicians, including Meghan Henderson, Iain MacFarlane and Ewan Henderson, combined with the sometimes mesmerising video footage, made this a real gem of a show.

With time to kill until the next concert, I went for a wander around the Hall and stumbled upon Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas giving an impromptu concert on the stairs with their 100+ Fiddle & Cello workshop. It was an unexpected and highly enjoyable event.

Another good Open Stage followed but it was slightly spoiled for me by a young lady performing under the name Laurence Made Me Cry. Her first song was good but she then produced a laptop with all her backing music and backing vocals recorded on it. She then asked former Open Stage performer and now highly successful artist, Rachel Sermanni to join her to sing the final two songs. To me, having pre-recorded backing and a star singer kind of defeats the purpose of the competition.

A short walk up to the Piping Centre was next on the agenda for the main event of the evening. The support act were Solasta, a highly talented, classically trained young trio on guitar, fiddle and cello. Their set was a delight. Beautifully played and delivered with humour and enthusiasm, it was a performance that will last long in my memory.

It was then time for Mairearad Green and Anna Massie to take the stage with their usual, sparkling set of tunes, songs and stories. It was, to misquote Anna, a pure wee stoater of a set. A great way to finish a really good day so I decided not to risk the walk to the Drygate and went home to catch up on my sleep.

 

Monday began with a great selection on the Danny Kyle Open Stage. Every act on today deserves a mention so here they are. Beautiful singing of Katie MacFarlane, great harmonies from Colour of Whisky, bothy ballads from Natalie Chalmers, great tunes from Ross Miller & Charlie Stewart and a fine set from Eabhal.

Upstairs again to the Strathclyde Suite next for one of the concerts that was very much a punt on my part. First up was Rod Picott and, although I enjoyed his style and his songs I can’t, as I write this, actually remember any specific songs. I will need to see if Spotify can jog my memory.

Kimmie Rhodes was the main act of the evening and she was excellent. She produced a great set of songs, delivered with an effortless charm that made it feel like a very intimate gig. Her son provided fine backing on guitar and vocals and her daughter joined them later and was also an excellent singer. All in all, a good night and Kimmie’s rendition of “I Just Drove By” brought a tear to my eye and was a highlight of my first week.

Tuesday began with the excitement of watching from the flat as the high tide combined with the pressure of water caused a manhole cover to blow and flood Clyde Place. I watched on as Police and Fire Brigade personnel stopped traffic and closed my route to the Concert Hall. Luckily, all was clear before it was time to head up to the Open Stage and the first act up were tremendous. Faramach, a group of schoolchildren from Dunfermline, took my breath away with their harmonies and range of songs. From Amy MacDonald, via Dixie Chicks to Skipinnish there set was a real joy. The previously mentioned Dosca were the other act worthy of a mention today.

So, that was it. End of part one and I was left wondering if part two might be a bit less enjoyable. Boy, was I wrong!

 

PART TWO

 

Wednesday began, as usual, with the Open Stage where Northern Company were excellent.

I don’t usually like to criticise performers too much on these blogs, partly because I know how hard it is to get up on stage and perform, but I am afraid I am going to make an exception now. I found Lloyd James Fay wrist-cuttingly and mind-numbingly boring and for the first time in eight years at CC, I didn’t applaud at the end of the set. I am sure he has his fans but to me this was the low point of the week.

A quick pint with Keith to raise the spirits and it was time to head back to the Strathclyde Suite for the evening concert and a meet-up with some Ceol Cholasa regulars. Calan, from Wales, were the first act on and they blew me away with their set of tunes and songs. Their enthusiasm shone through and the added step dancing helped to complete a very good set.

From Wales to Germany next and Cara were the main act of the night. Having witnessed their first ever Scottish gig at Ceol Cholasa, I was expecting great things and, after a slow start, they delivered.  Mainly showcasing stuff from their new album, they also managed to fit in Colonsay favourite, “Torn Screen Door”, and dedicated it to Keith and Pedie. The final encore of “Yet We Sing” was a beautiful way to end the show.

Thursday began rather too early with a massive crash as part of the roof of the building across the river fell to the ground as Storm Gertrude began to show its teeth. This meant another detour to get to the concert hall as roads and bridges were again closed. I was soaked to the skin by the time I reached the hall but a plate of Haggis, Neeps and Tatties with a Whisky Sauce got me warmed up and ready for action.

It was another mixed bag at the Open Stage with Amy Papiransky being the pick of the bunch.

When I first booked my tickets for this year’s events, the concert I was most looking forward to was Lau & the Unthanks. Sometimes, when you are really looking forward to an event, it can be a let-down. In this case, it certainly was not. From the moment The Unthanks took to the stage, this was a thing of pure joy. The sumptuous, almost ethereal, harmonies combined with the beautifully played string section and the supreme trumpet, were truly amazing. “The Magpie” was an absolute pleasure to listen to and “King of Rome” is one of these songs that can send shivers down your spine.

When Becky & Rachel joined Lau to provide backing vocals on the opening two tracks, Tiger Hill and The First Homecoming, I was in heaven. Lau then produced a concert that was a truly awesome and magical experience. Then, in among the astonishing wizardry that runs through their pieces, a moment of pure musical bliss as they performed the song “Ghosts”. By this stage, I was in a state of such unbridled joy that I was almost floating. We were then treated to the full seventeen minute version of “The Bell That Never Rang” complete with string quartet, to end the show. The encore saw Lau joined by the full Unthanks band for one last, glorious, finale. This was not just the best concert I had seen at this year’s CC but the best concert I have ever seen and, in all likelihood, the best concert I will ever see. In case you didn’t quite get it, I enjoyed it!

The weather had deteriorated even further by the time I left the Concert Hall but I was on such a high I decided to make the dash along Sauchiehall Street to the Festival Club and I was very glad I did. Daori Farrell was first up with some great Irish songs. Then he was joined by the rest of Fourwinds for “The Boys Around Tondaragee” and a set of tunes ending with my favourite from their debut album, the rollicking “Pearse’s Fancy”.

Next up were the Poozies and I hadn’t seen them since Ceol Cholasa 2011. They were excellent as always and it was great to see them again. The Nuala Kennedy Band were next and they were very good. They were then joined on stage by the Danish band Himmerland and they performed a great set together. That was it for me and time to face the weather and return home soaked to the skin once more. I was barely asleep when a Coastguard Rescue helicopter decided to hover just above my window for an hour as they searched the river. There is never a dull moment in this place!

By the time I got up on Friday, the soakings of the previous few days had taken their toll and I was fighting off a cold. The Squiggly Bridge was still closed so it was a minor detour to reach the Concert Hall again.  Another mixed bag at the Open Stage but Irish band Connla and Orkney fiddler, Kirsty Drever, were both very good.

Remarkably, it was actually dry when it came time to head over to the Old Fruitmarket for the next event. The East Pointers, from Prince Edward Island were on first and they rocked the place with their great tunes and songs. Aoife O’Donovan was then on, showcasing tracks from her latest album. She was very good but whoever had the idea of putting Aoife on in this venue, between these two bands, was not thinking straight. The noise from the assembled crowd was ridiculous and drowned out a lot of the subtleties of Aoife’s voice.

RURA were the main act of the evening and they have come a long way since I first saw them on the Open Stage many years ago. I thought the sound was probably a bit less than perfect but their musicianship shone through and Adam’s singing was a joy as always. They were joined by the East Pointers and Aoife for a great finale.

I was halfway up Buchannan Street on my way to the club when I thought I should probably give it a miss and try to keep my cold at bay for the final weekend.

Saturday began with a special event. The 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band’s “Live In Ireland” CD was one that I played constantly during the 80’s and 90’s and today, original band members were joined by some of the piping world’s finest performers to re-create that CD. It was a lovely concert, bringing back lots of memories and culminating in the wonderful “Journey to Skye”.

I decide to give the Open Stage a miss to meet up with some old friends and some even older relatives for a few drinks to get in the mood for the evening’s events.

Purely due to my desire to test the booking system when the line-up was first announced, I ended up in a front row, centre seat at the Concert Hall and what a concert it was. Leo & Anto were first on with an all too short set of old Saw Doctor’s classics with a bit of Jay-Z thrown in. Rachel Walker then did a short set of Gaelic songs before the main act of the evening.  Skipinnish have come a long way since their days as a two piece Ceilidh band and tonight, with a packed out Concert Hall, was a real test for them and it was one they passed with flying colours. They had the place rocking right from the off and Robert’s easy stage presence was nicely supported by Angus’s more droll interventions. All the great songs were there. “Land Below the Waves”, “December” and “The Island” were interspersed with some ceilidh sets and a sprinkling of new songs. “Ocean of the Free” was uplifting and “Iolaire”, with additional vocals by Ceitlin L R Smith, was absolutely beautiful. They were joined by Leo & Anto for a rollicking finale and by the time they finished with “Walking on the Waves”, the whole place was literally jumping. A singalong version of “Wild Mountain Thyme” brought the proceedings to an end. It was a magic concert and for me sets the boys up as the natural successors to Runrig as Scotland’s foremost Celtic band.

I was still buzzing as I headed off for my final Festival Club visit of the year. I arrived in time to catch the end of a set by Clare Hastings with Jenn Butterworth & Laura Wilkie (and some guy whose name I didn’t catch) and it was a good start to the night. Next up were Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys and boy, what a show they put on. Great songs, great tunes and great dancing all combined to make a highly entertaining set. French outfit, Moussu T e lei jovents were next and their set was also hugely enjoyable and a little bewildering at times. Festival Club regulars, Blazin’ Fiddles were next on and as usual, they rocked the place. Fast-paced tune sets flowed and had the crowd jumping. To finish my club visits for this year we had the Danish/Scottish band Breus. This is the joy of the club as I would never have thought of going to see this band but they were great. Intriguing sets, lovely vocals and some spectacular Tequila drinking (by the band, not me!) brought my night to an enjoyable end.

Sunday began with the Open Stage Finalists Showcase and, as always, I agreed with some of the winners and not so much with some others. I had seen three of the acts before (Quick, Ross & Charlie and Charly Houston) and the first two were excellent. Bella & the Bear were very quirky and I think I liked them too. I had heard Bella Gaffney’s original performance on Celtic Music Radio and thought she was excellent. Her song “After the Fall” is one I am still playing regularly.

Time for a quick dash upstairs to the Main Hall to take my favourite seat (S25) for my final show, Transatlantic Sessions. The house band were excellent and provided backing to a fine line-up of acts. The Milk Carton Kids were very good, despite a somewhat bizarre and mystifying interruption by Jerry Douglas. Their harmonies were spot on.  Karen Mathieson performed well, Joe Newberry was very good and Cara Dillon’s unaccompanied number was beautiful. There can be no doubt who was the star of the show though. The stunning voice and shining presence of Rhiannon Giddens is something I will never forget. From big, show stopping numbers to her remarkable re-working of “Black is the Colour” to the old country standard “She’s Got You”, Rhiannon was phenomenal. A great way to end a great twelve days at Celtic Connections.

All that was left for me was to negotiate the perils of Storm Frank and points failure at Dalmuir to finally arrive home 24 hours and 46 minutes late. It was a truly magical twelve days and I thank all the friends, old and new, who helped make it special. Just 49 weeks to go before it all starts again with just Oban Live and Ceol Cholasa to fill the gap. I can’t wait!

Hughie.

 

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