Celtic Connections boss almost quit under pressure

Festival director Donald Shaw. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Festival director Donald Shaw. Picture: Donald MacLeod

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THE musician who masterminds Glasgow’s huge Celtic Connections festival has admitted he almost quit his role last year due to pressure of work.

Donald Shaw has revealed he felt he had taken on too much during 2014, when he was involved in a string of special events coinciding with the Commonwealth Games.

Joni Mitchell. Picture: Getty

Joni Mitchell. Picture: Getty

The award-winning performer, composer and producer admits he had a serious “wobble” over whether to continue at the festival - which he describes as a “huge undertaking” - after eight years.

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However the festival’s artistic director told The Scotsman he had decided to remain at the helm of the event for the foreseeable future and could now stay for another five years. He said the lure of trying to persuade musicians like Joni Mitchell to appear at the festival for the first time had helped persuade him to stay.

Mr Shaw’s announcement is a huge boost for the festival ahead of its opening gala tonight when it will pay tribute to the late pioneering musician Martyn Bennett, who died of cancer almost 10 years after at the age of just 33.

Advance ticket sales are said to be as strong as ever with the festival hoisting the sold out signs above a string of big-name shows, despite boasting its biggest ever programme, which will be staged across 20 venues around the city.

Mr Shaw has combined as role as artistic director with performing and recording with the Celtic band Capercaillie, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, along with other projects like creating the soundtrack for TV shows like Gaelic drama Bannan and documentary series Hebrides - Islands on the Edge.

He was also involved in a number of major events during the Commonwealth Games, including a special Celtic Connections programme of music events around the city.

Mr Shaw said: “I literally go from one year to the next and if I survive it in my own mind I continue. I re-appraise it at the beginning of every year and say to myself ‘should I do this?’

“I don’t know how long I will continue for. I’ve agreed to stay for the foreseeable future in the sense that I’ve not given them a leaving date.

“The festival is a huge undertaking. Because I’ve been doing other work, I’ve been a little bit careful about whether I could actually manage to do what I was doing. “Last year was definitely my busiest every year, it was crazy. I was a bit uncertain whether I’d another festival last year. I’m on more solid ground than I was this time last year, I had a bit of wobble and I felt like it was all too much.

“It’s not that big a deal, the festival is much bigger than me. We have an amazing team that works on the event, although there’s just five or six people really, outwith me. Over the years we try to learn what works and what doesn’t.

“A big factor in me staying is the concerts that I thought wouldn’t happen and then I get closer to them. I think to myself: ‘If I could just get another year I could make it work.’”

Mr Shaw, who will oversee his 10th programme in 2016, took over the event at a time of crisis after his predecessor, Colin Hynd, resigned following a disastrous festival in 2006, and he has been credited with expanding the breadth of its programme, embracing acts from the indie, Americana and world music scenes.

The festival, which expanded into Glasgow’s new Hydro arena last year for two major concerts, is based at the Royal Concert Hall, but also deploys venues ranging from The Arches, The Mitchell Theatre, St Andrews in the Square and the Old Fruitmarket to Glasgow School of Art, where the late-night festival club is returning this year.

Mr Shaw added: “The hardest thing is trying to keep a sense of spontaneity, which was easier to do maybe five or 10 years ago. Logistically, everything has to be so detailed.

“When we announce the programme in October people want the headlines and to know all the big names. There are a lot of tickets to sell and there are also a lot of things going on in the city, the festival has done amazingly well considering that.

“The Hydro isn’t a challenge to us in terms of what else is on there as we wouldn’t be competing with Take That or whatever, but it’s a challenge when you think another 10,000 people must have shelled out tonight, tomorrow night and the next night to go there.

“People must run out of an entertainment budget sooner or later, that is the big deal. But Glasgow also seems to have an incredible awareness of what is going on in the music scene.

“Our sales are really good at the moment. If we’re on target and selling the same number of tickets as last year, I see that as a huge success. I always have sleepless nights thinking that there will come a point where the festival is too big for the financial climate.”

Among the hottest tickets this year’s festival are appearances by Van Morrison, a special performance by King Creosote of the soundtrack to the documentary series From Scotland With Love and a tribute to the late singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, which will feature special appearances from The Blue Nile’s singer Paul Buchanan, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, and Scottish folk veteran Dick Gaughan.

However most of the anticipation in the build-up to the festival has been focused on tonight’s opening concert, which will pay tribute to the musical legacy of Martyn Bennett with a live recreation of his final album, Grit, which is being masterminded by classical violinist Greg Lawson.

Made when he was seriously ill, it is hailed by many critics as his best work for the way he combined renditions of largely forgotten traditional songs with his own ground-breaking sound.

Around 90 musicians will be involved in the first ever live recreation of Grit, which will feature a number of guest singers whose identity will be kept a surprise until they appear on stage.

Mr Shaw said: “I think it will be an amazing experience for the audience if they know Martyn’s album.

“It will be almost like a de-mashup. There will be nothing electronic on the night, everything is real and in many ways, it will be recreating anything from the record in a really orchestral way. It will be pretty epic.

“In many ways, it is the biggest ever undertaking for the festival, as it is a specially-created hand-picked orchestra for a brand new piece of music of this form. Greg was very keen to have experienced orchestral musicians that were excited about the idea of playing in the concert, who knew his music and the record.”

Bennett, born in Canada but brought up in the Highlands from the age of six by his folk singer mother Margaret, was the first traditional musician to win a coveted place at the City of Edinburgh Music School and was also a gifted student at the RSAMD, in Glasgow, where – unknown to his tutors – he visited traditional music sessions.

He later developed an interest in electronic music and, after buying a keyboard, sampler and mixing desk, quickly began to make a name for himself with solo live performances.

The piper and fiddler recorded his acclaimed debut in just seven days and quickly landed headline slots at Celtic Connections and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay party. However, towards the end of 2000 he was diagnosed with cancer for the second time and never toured again.

Mr Shaw added: “Martyn was quite a humble guy in many ways. During the times that I spent working with him, I always found him to be very excited and wide-eyed about music and what was around him. He always talked about fiddle players that he loved and that he wished he could play like them.

“I think he would be really humbled by the idea that a show as big as this is happening and I think he would also agree that you don’t have to get struck in one structural form.

“I think he would like the idea of an orchestral version of the album rather than recreating it in an electronic way, he was very excited by orchestral music and I think he if had lived into his life he would have moved on and really focused on that.

“What’s important about what he achieved was that he wasn’t scared of playing to a different audience.

“The fact that he was standing up and playing the pipes in places like the Barrowlands and T in the Park was seen as a very brave thing to do at the time and it gave a lot of other musicians self-confidence and the belief that the music didn’t have to belong in a certain venue or folk festival.

“I think his legacy will continue to be felt for a long time. I was speaking to his record label recently and they were saying he sells more albums now than five years ago.”

• Celtic Connections starts tonight and runs until 1 February.

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