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Celtic Connections 2018 – Part One

January 29, 2018

After last year’s health problems, January this year saw every sneeze, cough and sniffle sending me into a panic but I made it to the 25th without any problems. Reminiscing with old friends delayed my arrival at the Open Stage but the two acts I saw were both excellent. Nicolette MacLeod produced multi-layered vocals with a loop box and sang beautifully with her guitar. The Canny Band put on a fine set of tunes with keyboard and accordion.

It was then time to pop upstairs for my first main event of the year and it was a beauty. Binneas nam Ban (the Mellifluousness of Women) was an all-female night of Gaelic song. The house band of Jenn Butterworth, Shona Donaldson, Eilidh MacFadyen and  Ingrid Henderson produced a fine backing for the singers and played a couple of cracking sets too. The singing was stunning. The harmonies of Sian were beautiful, Margaret Stewart’s renditions of the more classical Gaelic songs were breath-taking and Kathleen MacInnes was as delightful as ever. It was a great way to start my trip.

 

Day two began with a truncated Open Stage, partly due to artists calling off and partly due to having to be at the 02 ABC by 7:30.

The Daddy Naggins were first on and they were excellent. Bluegrass at its best from this well-established local band. They were followed by the singer/guitarist Joel Gardiner and his set sparkled along nicely. Rebekah Kirk was the final act I saw and she has undoubtedly got talent but some of the songs were a bit samey for me.

The opening act at the 02 was one of last year’s Open Stage winners, Dope Sick Fly and they were very good. Their funk/rap style is not one of my particular favourites but they certainly put on a good show and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Then it was time for Big Country to take the stage. It has been 29 years since I last saw them live and I was expecting it to feel like a tribute act but how wrong I was. This was a stomping, crackling Big Country set of the very highest order. The musicianship was superb and the songs sounded as fresh as they had all those years ago. It was a night of nostalgia carried off with style and panache. There is no highlight as the whole show, from the opening strains of Harvest Home to the closing fanfare of In a Big Country was simply magnificent.

It was then time to don the crampons and attempt the hill climb up to the Art School for the Festival Club. Things kicked off with a young trio whose names I didn’t catch. They performed a good set on fiddle, cello and guitar. The night continued with excellent country singing from Corby Lund and Hayes Carll and a great set of tune from Aizle. Talisk then took to the stage and proceeded to blow the place apart with a storming and energetic set of high quality. That seemed like a good time to call it a day and head for home.

 

Day Three kicked off with another excellent Open Stage. The Deadly Winters were first on and were every bit as good as when I saw them four years ago. When Gordon Kennedy appeared on stage with a laptop I was not filled with hope but he produced a stunning set. Beautiful vocals combined with a keyboard and some soundscapes from the laptop and it was hugely effective. The final act I saw were the young Aberdeenshire band The Rowies. They sang and played great old songs with style and skill.

Time for my first visit to the New Auditorium next and, after the slight disappointment of finding that no drink could be taken in, it was a cracking venue with comfy seats and wonderful acoustics. The Fretless were first on and this Canadian/US quartet produced a nice set of tunes on fiddle, viola and cello.

Cara Dillon was the main act of the evening and she performed a sumptuous concert. Laid back, charming and backed by a supremely talented band, she gave an immaculate performance. All of the songs hit their mark but the duet with John Smith was an extra special moment. When she moved to sit by Sam at the piano to sing the final number, barely six feet from where I was sitting, it was a lovely end to the set. An encore of the Parting Glass rounded off the evening perfectly.

Sunday at the Open Stage began with Falkirk Traditional Music Project and the children put on a great set. Callum Jones, a singer/songwriter, was next and he also produced a highly enjoyable set of songs. The Arkansas Ramblers (combined age 660!) came next and their set of bluegrass covers was very good. I only caught the start of the set by Elgin based Dougal’s Jumper but they sounded excellent too.

Back up to the New Auditorium and the opening act was Rory Butler. He is undoubtedly a talented guitarist and songwriter but his songs are just not my thing.

The main act tonight was the first ticket I bought. I had seen I’m With Her three years ago when they first performed as a trio at the Mitchell and I was really looking forward to this one. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz combine their talents to produce something even greater. The harmonies are beautiful, the songs are excellent and the whole thing is utterly joyful.  It was a concert of highlights but Sara’s vocals on Overland and the unplugged version of Be My Husband were outstanding.

I was in two minds at this point whether to call it a night or brave the weather and head for the Festival Club. The Club won out and it turned out to be an excellent decision. First up was the newly-crowned Young Traditional Musician of the Year, Hannah Rarity and she showed why she won with a cracking set of Scots songs. Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Ramblers were next and it was another cracking set. The banjo picking of Allison de Groot was a joy to watch and Stash Wyslouch’s guitar and vocal backed Bruce perfectly. Their version of Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars was one of the highlights of the week for me. Ceol Cholasa favourite, Karine Polwart took the stage next, singing with Alkinoos Ioannidis and it was a beautiful set that had the crowd yelling for more. David Foley & Jack Smedley were next and they were backed by John Lowrie on drums and Jenn Butterworth on guitar. It was a fast-moving set of self-penned tunes and was great to watch. Jenn stayed on stage and was joined by Hamish Napier, Adam Sutherland, Ross Couper and a whistle player whose name I didn’t catch. They performed as Nae Sense and produced a thumping set that was almost Talisk-like in its rip-roaring, manic quality. As they played an encore at around 2:20am, I decide it was time to call it a night.

So that ends part one of my trip. I have no gigs tonight so I will recuperate and get ready for part two. If it is anywhere near as good as part one, it will have been a successful trip!

 

Hughie

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