Alasdair Roberts, The Low Anthem and Buffy Sainte-Marie set for Celtic Connections
With Alasdair Roberts, The Low Anthem and Buffy Sainte-Marie all featuring, the Celtic Connections festival just keeps going from strength to strength, says Ninian Dunnett
It’s time to take your ears for a walk this month as the world’s biggest winter music festival erupts again in Glasgow. Sixteen years since Celtic Connections took its first tentative steps at the Royal Concert Hall, it’s become a spectacular Scottish success story. This year’s line-up ushers in 1,500 top-flight musicians from 35 countries, who will play at more than a dozen venues in the city.
The clue’s in the name – as what has underpinned this achievement has really been ‘connections’ – not just the connections between musicians and their mushrooming audience, but the imaginative programming of putting special talents in inspired combinations that, year after year, spur them to new musical heights.
Certainly Jerry Douglas, born in Warren, Ohio, gets a kick from Glasgow in January. ‘It feels like Christmas to me! That whole wonderful setting, and the atmosphere – I just go crazy, I don’t want to go home.’
The fact that Douglas is a 12-time Grammy winner, revered for his guitar work with everyone from Ray Charles to Elvis Costello, should grant him authority. But as musical director (with Aly Bain) of the Transatlantic Sessions, he has a grassroots feel for Celtic Connections’ trick of mixing and matching, especially when it comes to American folk.
‘Music has been one of Scotland’s major exports for three or four hundred years, and this is the backbone of Celtic Connections, and the reason for it – to share the music and to bring it back home again,’ he says. ‘It comes back in a different shape, but there’s something added to it, too.’
Douglas is enthusiastic about the ‘ultra-modern’ scope of a festival that includes contemporary stars of jazz and world music alongside the latest Scottish innovations. He recalls encountering Jewish-music revisionists the Klezmatics at the ABC three years ago. ‘A giant cacophonous sound! It blew the whole premise that this is all just Celtic music, or old music, and I thought – “how are we going to follow that?”’
To get the most from the festival, Douglas is coming over a few days early this year. ‘Because this is one of the few places in the world you can really have the chance to listen to new music. It’s unique.’
Celtic Connections, various venues, Glasgow, Thu 14 – Sun 31 Jan. See folk music listings for details or go to www.celticconnections.com for more info.
The native backbone of Celtic Connections may set a standard for traditional prowess, but the festival is a fierce champion of up and coming talents with one foot in the future too. Look out for:
Acclaimed Glasgow krautrockers The Phantom Band headline a celebration of 15 years of indie accomplishment, including Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat previewing new work with Bill Wells, a first performance from ex-Aereogrammers The Unwinding Hours, and label founders Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock.
St Kilda Tapes/Alasdair Roberts
Playing the multimedia visuals of his evacuee’s story like an instrument alongside looped guitar and sampler, David Allison has entranced audiences in London, Ireland and Canada. Sharing the bill, the splendidly idiosyncratic Alasdair Roberts is at the cutting edge of Scottish folk.
A Scottish Songbook
King Creosote, Kris Drever, Karine Polwart and the rest of the stellar cast assemble to pay tribute to native excellence, with this look back at songs of the last hundred years. Pop and folk classics, surprises and special guests are promised in what should be an affirmation of a rich heritage.
An Tobar Sessions
This salute to the island of Mull’s arts centre is an anti-parochial
jamboree, bringing together fiddler Aidan O’Rourke (of Lau and Blazin’ Fiddles) with inspirational pianist Dave Milligan, while Colin MacIntyre unpacks the post-Mull Historical Society songs recorded in his former Tobermory classroom.
From genuine 60s icons (including Tom Paxton and Buffy Sainte-Marie) to the latest experiments (check out the fusion of bluegrass and rap purveyed by the Deadly Gentlemen’s Greg Liszt, late of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band) there’s no shortage of transatlantic hot tickets:
The Low Anthem
The fast-rising trio’s classic folk virtues have made Oh My God, Charlie Darwin Uncut magazine’s Americana album of the year. Measured, unhurried tunes and finely-crafted harmonies built around Ben Knox Miller’s smoky tenor mix winningly with raucous stomping.
Promoting her seventh album July Flame, the bespectacled Portland, Oregon-based girl returns after a self-imposed songwriting hiatus with catchy tunes and musical invention, and her four-piece band – the newly-christened Hall of Flames – should add some oomph.
The journey from Anchorage, Alaska, hasn’t prevented this effervescent five-piece from following the Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek to the distinguished title of Telluride Bluegrass Band Champions. Beguiling female vocals jostle with instrumental virtuosity and covers of the Beatles and John Hiatt.
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three
Like a Leon Redbone for a new generation, LaFarge draws on ragtime, acoustic blues and jugband music from the 20s and 30s to cook up a bubbling brew that is sprightly, soulful and thoroughly satisfying.
As well as the perennial Irish influx, and exotica from Celtic outposts like Galicia and the Isle of Man, this year’s programme features artists from Brazil, Portugal, Japan and Norway. A few ones to watch:
This Japanese indie girl’s musical palette is whimsically derivative, but her voice is a thing of wonder - now girlishly flirtatious, now stridently soaring, or sinking to the heartfelt intensity of a Johnsonless Antony. Maverick Scottish guitarist Bill Wells may bring out the best in her.
Trilok Gurtu Band with Jan Garbarek and Shankar Mahadevan
Connoisseurs will find it hard to resist the reunion of these storied collaborators, joining Gurtu’s beguiling percussive shenanigans and Mahadevan’s extraordinary voice with Jan Garbarek’s keening soprano saxophone.
Reinventing the passionate Portuguese tradition of fado with a pop sensibility, this young quartet conjure up a flamboyantly theatrical narrative of Lisbon life that has seduced audiences of all ages. The album ‘Cancao ao lado’ was one of the world music triumphs of 2009.
The Legendary Gypsy Queens and Kings
Emphatically not the 80s purveyors of ‘Volare’ and other flamenco lite, this barnstorming Romany royalty features high-octane Bucharest band Mahala Rai Banda (much remixed by devotees of club-friendly Balkan Beats) with top-notch singers and dancers from Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Best of the rest
Determined to broaden our musical horizons and prove that Celtic Connections goes far, far beyond ‘folk’, here are some of the best of the rest:
Songs of Nick Drake
Scotland is well represented at this foray into the contemporary English songbook, with guests like Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch and resurgent Edinburgh-based folkie Vashti Bunyan joining legendary producer Joe Boyd and sundry others paying tribute to the late singer-songwriter.
Carolina Chocolate Drops
This trio of musicians from Carolina’s Piedmont region bring bouncy banjo music, teamed up with the fiddle, in true Southern antebellum style. Their late-January gig also marks the launch of their album Genuine Negro Jig.
The festival boasts a true acapella superstar in Bobby McFerrin, but fans of the genre will also be hunting down the exciting LA group Sonos, as well as this award-winning, YouTube-celebrated New York septet (whose mimicry of instruments inclines them to prefer the label “voice play”).
Ry Cooder & The Chieftains
Also featuring Mexican-American five-piece Los Cenzontles, stepdancers and other guests, this promises to be an extraordinary one-off show – part history lesson, part hoedown – as these legendary heroes of roots music on both sides of the Atlantic join forces to tell the true story of a band of doomed Irishmen who fought for Santa Anna’s Mexican army against the United States in the 1840s.