While the official moment that the clocks went forward actually fell an hour or so after the last happy stragglers left the site, the two-day Celtic Connections Big Top event – the mammoth Glasgow festival’s maiden foray outwith its Glasgow home and time-honoured January schedule – definitely made it feel as though summer had arrived early.
The fact that Skye, where this new temporary encampment was pitched, apparently enjoyed Scotland’s balmiest weather over the weekend was a big help in facilitating the gladsome al fresco vibe that complemented the music, but the organisers can take full credit for other key factors in the equation.
Foremost among these was a line-up of Celtic and Americana artists selected with characteristically shrewd discernment, allied with a painstaking level of quality control, as regards infrastructure, production values and customer care, which is equally renowned as a Celtic Connections hallmark.
For a start, it’s surely the first time that three Grammy Award winners have graced Skye with their presence on the same occasion – namely Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne and freshly-garlanded duo The Civil Wars, all of whom contributed to a feast of delectable singing over the two nights.
Malo, after parading his gloriously Orbison-esque yet uniquely warm, supple voice in all its glory, accompanied solely (and superbly) by an accordionist, was joined for the second half of his set by most of the Michael McGoldrick Band, led by the eponymous Mancunian flute, whistle and uilleann pipes ace, contributing to a joyfully Celtic-ised climactic version of signature Mavericks number Dance the Night Away.
Cash delivered an absorbing selection of US roots classics from her latest album The List – based on a roll-call of essential material bequeathed by her dad – highlighting her singing’s technical craft and interpretative finesse, but it was her relative misfortune to be on after The Civil Wars, aka singers and songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White, whose utterly spellbinding, spine-tingling performance was the undisputed highlight of the entire programme.
The magic created by their intertwined chiaroscuro vocals is special enough on their exquisitely haunting debut album Barton Hollow: in the flesh the impact was intensified several times over, each delightedly inspiring the other to repeated heights of ecstatic, anguished beauty.
Honourable mention in the singing stakes must also go to Boston-based singer Aoife O’Donovan, best known as a member of top neo-bluegrass outfit Crooked Still, but here stepping out with her new solo material, and revealing a splendidly raunchy, bluesy dimension to her palette in addition to her trademark crystalline purity.
And also to Scotland’s own Karen Matheson, appearing as featured guest with fiery Highland combo Dàimh, complementing their instrumental might with luscious Gaelic balladry.
The final sweet programming touch was rounding off Saturday’s bill with local boys Niteworks, whose pumping, pounding mix of soulful vocals, pipes and whistles with up-to-the-minute beats, samples and electronic grooves, made for a brilliantly apt climax.