You’d imagine it will be a proud and potent moment for Donald Shaw this Saturday night, as he takes the stage at Celtic Connections not as artistic director but as co-founder of Capercaillie, a pivotal force in the contemporary Scottish folk renaissance, from which in turn the festival itself emerged, back in 1994.
Two decades on, Capercaillie’s return to the event, after several years’ absence – reflecting Shaw’s directorial scruples about booking his own band – justly sets the seal on their own 30th anniversary celebrations, which included last August’s first new studio album since 2008, At The Heart Of It All.
Characteristically, though, however distant a milestone Saturday’s occasion represents since Shaw, then a 16-year-old accordion prodigy, formed the nucleus of the band with whistle player and fellow Oban High School pupil Marc Duff (a Capercaillie mainstay until the mid-1990s, and one of the gig’s several special guests), his primary focus will be on the music. He’s no stranger, after all, to swapping his director’s hat for a performer’s at Celtic Connections – annually at the Transatlantic Sessions, for instance – and while this might seem like willingly compounding his stress levels, Shaw says it’s actually his only true respite from the 18-day festival’s mammoth logistics.
“Going onstage for me is like going through the door to Narnia,” he says. “It puts me in a completely different place, where the music takes over. I lose all sense of time – and I’m definitely not thinking about what’s happening in the office or at other venues. It can be a bit disorientating coming off stage, back into the thick of it all with a dozen messages on my phone, but while I’m playing I’m in another dimension altogether.”
All the guests on At The Heart of It All, which sees Capercaillie once more revisiting the wellspring of Gaelic tradition where they first drew inspiration, while subtly distilling the other groundbreaking influences they’ve explored since 1983, will feature in the show, including Lau/Kan fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, who vividly recalls the band’s revelatory impact on his own 16-year-old self: “I’d been playing fiddle since I was eight and I loved it, but it was very much a private, niche kind of thing, separate from all the other music I liked.
“Then I heard Capercaillie and a whole new world opened up – they were playing tunes I knew, but they were cool, they were worldly, they were groovy: they made that connection between my love of traditional music and my love of music in general. They made me think about folk music’s future – and my future within it – in a whole different way.”
The festival’s multicultural credentials will be underlined with a guest appearance from celebrated Indian composer AR Rahman - who masterminded the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire - alongside the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
More than 8000 tickets have been sold in advance for the biggest ever concert at the festival, which will see reformed Scottish pop favourites Del Amitri take the stage at the SSE Hydro for their first live appearance in more than a decade.
Artistic director Donald Shaw said the festival was likely to deploy the venue again in future due to the response to the Del Amitri show and a gala “Homecoming” concert in the same venue the following evening, with South African outfit The Mahotella Queens headlining a fiesta of world music for Burns Night.
At least 100,000 festival-goers are expected at more than 300 shows during the event, which was initially launched to fill the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall at a traditionally quiet time of year.
Shaw said: “All our ticket sales are doing really well at this stage.
“The shows at the Hydro have more than matched our expectations, the advance sales are great. I don’t think this year will be a one-off.
“A lot of our artists, like Sharon Shannon and Kathleen MacInnes, who have been to the festival before and have their own audience are looking like selling out again, which is amazing really, but I don’t think that would necessarily happen if they were on in Glasgow in May.
“We’re very pleased at things like the Roaming Roots Revue, which we introduced last year as a kind of indie version of Transatlantic Sessions.
“It wasn’t that busy last year but it’s looking like it might sell out this year, and that’s without any real headliners.
“For me, that’s really encouraging as it suggests there is a younger audience connecting with the periphery of folk music and where singer-songwriting is going at the moment.”
The festival is being staged across 20 venues around the city ranging from the City Halls and the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow Art Club, The Arches and the O2 ABC in the city centre to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and Oran Mor in the west end, the Pearce Institute in Govan and the Platform arts centre in Easterhouse.
However for the second year in a row much of the festival’s traditional hub at the concert hall will be out of bounds due to an ongoing refurbishment and extension of the building. The Mitchell Theatre is standing in as a replacement venue for smaller-scale shows.
There was a further headache for Shaw and his team when plans to use the new Reid Building at Glasgow School of Art for the late night festival club were scuppered after tickets had gone on sale by late-running building work. Instead, the event will have to return to an Australian theme bar near the concert hall.
He added: “The art school missed their deadlines for whatever reason and couldn’t guarantee the space we were going to use would be ready. We had already sold tickets and needed to know one way or the other.
“However we’ve resurrected the Late Night Sessions, which we used to have on in the concert hall, at the Piping Centre, which has really helped, as it gives us an extra few hundred capacity. The music at the festival club will be pretty full on while the Piping Centre will be a bit more chilled.”
Celtic Connections runs until 2 February.
• Capercaillie play the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 18 January. www.celticconnections.com