Brian Ferguson: Celtic Connections going from strength to strength

Siobhan Miller performs at Celtic Connections. Picture: John Devlin

Siobhan Miller performs at Celtic Connections. Picture: John Devlin

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It is testament to the strength and growth of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival that although this column appears the day after the event was officially due to finish, the city’s extended party will be far from over.

Huge demand for tickets to see Robert Plant, Bernard Butler, Ben Watt and Graham Coxon pay tribute to the late Glasgow guitarist Bert Jansch has ensured the festival has rolled over into a Monday night for the first time. The 2,500-ticket show at the Royal Concert Hall has been added to the lengthy list of sell-outs for a festival which has scaled new heights this year – and is showing no signs of age as it nears the quarter-century mark.

Securing appearances from Plant and Kris Kristoffersen were undoubted coups for artistic director Donald Shaw for his tenth festival, but what is perhaps more remarkable are the full houses being reported across the city for acts who are still largely unheralded in Scotland. It seems a minor miracle that the Hebridean band Skipinnish could attract a full house to the Royal Concert Hall on Saturday night, but it was standing room only in the venue.

Concerts by other island favourites Skerryvore and Saltfishforty, from Tiree and Orkney respectively, were among the most sought-after at the festival. The sell-out concerts show not only the growing popularity of these bands’ style of feel-good music and song, but the breadth of appeal Celtic Connections can now boast among all generations. Although the Edinburgh festivals are staged on a much larger scale, Celtic Connections is now arguably the single most important showcase of Scottish culture in the calendar.

This is partly down to a willingness by Mr Shaw to embrace indie, rock, jazz and electronic acts into his programme, allowing Celtic Connections to long since shrug off its folk festival tag. If anything, it has become a world culture event under his stewardship, with acts from America, Canada, Africa and all over Europe starring in this year’s line-up.

As ever, though, the question of what the future may hold for Celtic Connections arises. After several years of disruption from building work at the concert hall, the festival’s long-time headquarters was finally operating at full tilt with its long-awaited new auditorium part of the programme and its foyer spaces buzzing day and night.

Celtic Connections has had no trouble attracting audiences to the Drygate Brewery for the new “late-night sessions,” while atmospheric venues such as the Mackintosh Church, St Andrew’s in the Square and the Glasgow Art Club are an essential part of the festival’s landscape now. An intriguing dilemma for the festival team must be whether to pursue more bigger-name artists for the event – particularly when a much bigger venue like the SSE Hydro is now available to them. However, the festival does not have a bottomless pit of money available to stage the event – especially since it has been inexplicably lacking a headline sponsor in recent years.

Meanwhile, it is odd that a band like Mumford & Sons have not performed at Celtic Connections, yet have appeared regularly in the Highlands in recent years. And while the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor and Joan Baez are still touring, it is tempting to imagine what they could bring to the festival – especially if they could be enticed to strike up their own Celtic Connections for a one-off show – or two.

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