In the mix
Celtic Connections has grown from modest roots 15 years ago and can truly claim to offer as ambitious a musical programme as any festival anywhere. Rachel Devine and Kenny Mathieson pick out their highlights from this year’s 300 plus events
Music isn’t what it used to be. This is something we have to be thankful for as the constant evolution, recycling and re-fashioning of music means there’s always someone out there trying to do things a bit differently. While there’s been much carping about big business and the internet killing music, live performance is actually stronger than ever, a phenomenon which highlights the true strengths of a festival like Celtic Connections.
We live in an age of cross-generational, cross-genre and cross-border collaboration. No musical genre is sacred or set in stone, just fit for celebration or reinvention. Just ask innovators like Kris Drever, Michael McGoldrick or Chris Stout. Well-worn traditions may provide the starting point for work by the likes of Senegalese guitar hero Baaba Maal and US bluegrass masters Punch Brothers, but these are pushed to new head spaces through their virtuostic playing. Celtic Connections acknowledges Scotland’s roots in every possible way, hence why showcasing indie rockers such as Teenage Fanclub, Emma Pollock and Camera Obscura is just as important as the inclusion of The Usual Suspects, Lau or Blazin’ Fiddles. So go indulge. Here we present four of the highlights to get you started, while on page 59 we provide full listings of all the shows over the next 14 days of festivities.
Bert Jansch with Espers and Eliza Carthy
It’s near impossible to overstate the influence of Bert Jansch on modern guitar music. His place in British folk history is indubitable, but among an array of musicians who strum on six strings he is considered a god.
Neil Young called him ‘the greatest acoustic guitar player of all time’, Jimmy Page was obsessed with every pick and pleck, and in more recent times Bernard Butler, Noel Gallagher and Jarvis Cocker have all paid tribute to his fastidious fingers.
Born in Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow in 1943, Jansch’s complex picking style and grasp of unconventional time signatures would appear to require a PhD in mathematics as well as music but the end product has always been a sweet sweep of psychedelic soundscapes, from songs such as ‘Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning’ to his version of the folk classic ‘Blackwaterside’.
Jansch is all the rage with the nu-folkies too, having teamed up with Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Espers, the latter joining him on stage at the Royal Concert Hall for this gig. Support comes from Eliza Carthy, the daughter of Jansch’s old jamming buddy Martin Carthy, who will be unveiling tracks from her forthcoming album Dreams of Breathing Underwater.
It’s a big year for Jansch fans – his legendary folk-jazz supergroup Pentangle are set to reform for a one-off gig in June at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the venue where they recorded the live disc of their double album Sweet Child. The original line-up, which includes Jansch, John Renbourn and Danny Thompson will be in attendance. (RD)
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Wed 23 Jan.
Celtic Connections has a well-established tradition of commissioning large-scale collaborations, and the sensational Bagad Kemper from Brittany have been among those who have delivered most satisfyingly on their remit in the past. It is reasonable to assume, then, that their new offering for this year’s event, D’Ecosse en Cornouaille (From Scotland to Brittany) will add further lustre to their already glowing reputation.
The Breton collective is something of an institution in itself. The Bagad (which means pipe band) was first formed in the 1950s in the Breton town of Kemper (also known as Quimper), which gives them fair claim to being one of the longest established traditional folk bands in the world.
Their fearsomely loud instrumentation draws on three different classes of instruments – the bagpipes (binioù in Breton), the percussion (which, like Scottish pipe bands, is mainly made up of snare drums), and the bombardes, a Breton speciality that has been likened to a mixture of an oboe and a pipe chanter.
While their music has been firmly rooted in the Celtic traditions of Brittany, they have become increasingly open to wider influences as their international stature has grown. The band have collaborated with many top musicians, including Scottish artists like Capercaillie lead singer Karen Matheson and the two artists who will join them for this concert, singer Julie Fowlis and piper Fred Morrison.
Just in case the line-up doesn’t already muster enough pipes for your liking, Celtic Connections have kindly added the Clan Gregor Society Pipe Band to proceedings as well, and in the prevailing spirit of Scots-Breton collaborations, they will be joined by two Breton soloists, saxophonists Bernard le Dréau and guitarist and bass player Erwan Volant. (KM)
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow,Sun 27 Jan.
Jock Tamson’s Bairns play The Lasses’ Fashion
There was a time in the 1970s when Scottish traditional music languished in the doldrums of dusty collectors’ libraries and all that could be heard from the folk pubs and clubs were Chieftains’ songs and Christy Moore. Then, in 1982, Jock Tamson’s Bairns released The Lasses’ Fashion and the Scottish folk music revival was underway.
This classic album gig – part of a new series that was introduced to Celtic Connections last year – is given an airing by the original line-up of JTB, Rod Paterson, Norman Chalmers, John Croall, Derek Hoy, Iain Hardie and Jack Evans, who all look as sprightly as they did back in the day. It is one of the most refined and revered collections of Scottish songs of the past 30 years, packed with deftly played and lovingly interpreted versions of songs such as ‘The Braes’, ‘O’ Balquhidder’, ‘Lady Keith’s Lament’, ‘The Skyeman’s Jig’ and ‘Jenny Dang the Weaver’ delivered in a haze of fiddles, whistles, squeeze boxes, jews harp, harmonica, guitar and bodhran drums. It was radical in its day but true to the spirit of the long-handed down songs. Today, it sounds as fresh as ever. And, as if it needed any greater recommendation were needed, it was voted by Richard Thompson as one of his top ten albums of all time alongside efforts by Elvis Presley, The Platters and The Smiths. (RD)
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Fri 1 Feb.
The Brendan Voyage
According to the Medieval manuscript The Navigation of St Brendan, the Irish monk Brendan, Abbot of Clonfort, sailed from Ireland to America in a leather boat around 500 AD, and landed in what became Newfoundland well before the Norsemen.
The fantastic story of their adventures captured the imagination of writer and explorer Tim Severin, who set out on a similar journey in 1976, a successful mission recorded in his book The Brendan Voyage.
Severin’s account provided the framework for Irish composer Shaun Davey’s large-scale suite of that name, which will be performed by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and the Uillean piper it was written for, Liam O’Flynn. The composer had never written for either orchestra or pipes when he began work on the suite in 1979.
‘The Brendan Voyage was written for Liam,’ Davey recalled, ‘and he had a significant role in shaping the music. Liam was the editor of the tunes I supplied for the pipe part. He would look them over and tell me what would work and what wouldn’t, and he put in all the grace notes, which are such a key element in piping, and which only a piper knows, really. It is that kind of detail which makes the tunes work.’
Davey uses the Uillean pipes to represent the boat itself, while the orchestra delineates the various triumphs and disasters of an epic voyage. The Brendan Voyage was first heard in Scotland back in 1990 in an unforgettable performance at the old Edinburgh Folk Festival, with Liam O’Flynn as soloist.
This revival forms part of a double bill with the great Donegal band Altan, who are regular visitors to Celtic Connections. They will ring the changes this year by featuring the Orchestra of Scottish Opera in arrangements drawn from across the 20 years of the band’s history. (KM)
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Sun 20 Jan.
View our listings to see what else is on at Celtic Connections.