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A Brief Visit to Celtic Connections 2019.

February 11, 2019

Due to my decision to spend a weekend at the European Indoor Athletics Championships in Glasgow at the beginning of March, my Celtic Connections trip was rather shorter than usual. Having said that, I still managed to pack plenty in.

After an evening spent catching up with my hosts over a fine bottle of whisky, it was time to get my musical trip started. My first port of call was the Danny Kyle Open Stage and it proved to be a good one to start with. We Three Quinns were this first act I saw and this family band produced a nice set of varied tunes and songs. They were followed by the all-female a cappella trio Tripple who were very impressive with their interesting arrangements of songs old and new. Nova Scotia based fiddler Brad Reid was next on and he played a fine set of tunes accompanied by his guitarist. I just had time to hear the opening songs from highly impressive country duo Black Feathers before I had to leave for my trip to the Mitchell Theatre for my next gig.

This event started off with one of the most surreal moments I have seen in all my eleven years attending this festival. Luis Martens took to the stage and sat at his electric harp, producing the most ethereal and ghostly sounds. Just when we were getting lost in the sounds we were all stunned when the operatic voice of Monica de Nut started singing from the back of the theatre. The show that followed was mesmerising and just ever so slightly weird.

I have long been a fan of Emily Smith but this was the first time I had managed to see her live, this time along with her husband Jamie McClennan. Their set was really good and I will definitely be checking out the album that is due out later in the year. Lovely songs and crystal clear harmonies combined to produce an enjoyable evening. A pint and a blether with some old pals in the Bon Accord finished the day off nicely.

Day Two started with another visit to the Open Stage and it started with a cracking performance from Back West, a superb ceilidh band from Galway. Their set was full of everything Celtic Connections should be about. Stomping tune sets, brilliantly played with a song thrown into the mix for good measure. They got a rapturous reception at the end of the set and another as they emerged from back stage on the way out of the hall. Needless to say, they got absolutely nothing in the awards. I will never quite understand how these things are decided. Next up were the duo with the best name of the festival, Zetor in the Kaleyard. When they started, I thought they were over-reliant on the loop station with guitar, percussion and fiddle all being played by the same person but I have to say it worked really well.

It was then time for me to leave for the walk to the Old Fruitmarket for the night’s triple bill concert. Galician singer/piper Xabier Diaz was on first with his band and they gave a rollicking performance of songs with some amazing percussion. Arcadian trio Vishten followed and, as a huge fan of their recent album, I was really looking forward to this set. I am happy to say it did not disappoint. Great tunes and songs followed and the energy was immense. Only one band could match and even surpass that energy and that was Glasgow based trio Talisk. Hayley Keenan on fiddle, Graeme Armstrong on guitar and the irrepressible Mohsen Amini on concertina produced an absolute cracker of a set filled with passion and no little skill. The audience lapped it up and it was a great way to end day two. 

Friday began with a bonus event that I had booked the day before I came down. It was a lovely concert at the RCS showcasing some past winners of the Young Trad Musician award. Anna Massie, Gillian Frame, Charlie Stewart and Hannah Rarity all showed their talents individually and together and it was a great start to the day. Along the road to the Concert Hall next for another Open Stage. Davey Horne opened things up, followed by Welsh a Capella singer Eve Telford. The best act of those I saw tonight was undoubtedly Cuan. They put on a fine set and are definitely a name to look out for. It was then time to head to the Tron to meet up and share a drink or two with some Ceol Cholasa regulars before and after the evening’s main event. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young ‘Uns was an exceptional concert.  Telling the tales of the early life of a Stockton man who was born in poverty, went on the hunger march and fought in the Spanish Civil War, it was show filled with emotion, not just with the wonderful songs but with the added poignancy of hearing Johnny tell the story himself. It was a quite outstanding event.

Saturday began with the annual Piping Concert in the Main Hall, this year being performed by the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland. The first half saw the Development band kick things off with the main band doing the second half. It was a great show with a couple of real spine-tingling moments, including a fine version of Hector the Hero.  The Open Stage was packed out and started off with the youngsters from St Roch’s with a great set of tunes and songs. There were some songs from Grainne Hunt, an excellent set from the Sam, Luc and Malin trio and I just caught a few minutes of The Boxy Gang before it was time to head off.

The Old Fruitmarket was my destination once more, this time for Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook and what a show it was. Karine, backed by an excellent band, sang some of the best Scottish pop and rock songs from the past 50 years and had the old place jumping. There were so many great moments like Louis Abbot’s stunning version of Party Fears Two and Inge Thompson’s singing of Mary’s Prayer. My own highlights were the beautiful version of Big Country’s Chance, a fine rendition of the pop classic I Could Be Happy by Altered Images and, best of all, an absolutely rocking version of The Tourists So Good To Be Back Home. That would have been a great end to the day but, as this was Super Saturday, I still had one more event to attend. It was time for a long walk back into the centre and along Sauchiehall Street to the lovely basement venue in the Blue Arrow Club. After a lot of walking and dancing it was nice to get a comfy seat and get ready for the midnight show. It was performed by former Old Crow Medicine Show singer Chance McCoy and it was another fine show. He quickly caught the mood of the crowd and the show rocked along with some great songs and good banter with the audience.

The final day began with another beautiful concert. Megan Henderson’s New Voices show, inspired by Fort William painter Christine Clark’s impressionistic paintings, was a show of great musicality and some fine pieces.

The queue for the Open Stage final was massive but the craic with Martin and Cathy helped pass the time. As usual, there weren’t many acts in the final that I would have chosen but Sam, Luc and Malin were the exception with another fine set.

My final event was Transatlantic Sessions in the Main Hall and it was a great way to end with a varied selection of singers backed by an exceptional band of musicians. Paul McKenna, Molly Tuttle, Cara Dillon, Tim O’Brien, John Doyle and Gretchen Peters all sang with Tim’s emotional song Guardian Angel being the highlight. If it is emotion in music you are looking for, no-one can deliver quite like Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. Their version of Phil’s tune, So Long Liam, originally written for his Pipe Dream tv show, was amazing. With John McCusker on fiddle and Michael McGoldrick on small pipes adding to the mix, it was a beautiful and moving moment.

So, that was it. Only 5 days but with 14 events attended and 38 acts seen I think I packed plenty in. Roll on Celtic Connection 2020.

Hughie McNeill

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