Launched in 1998 by former Celtic Connections director Colin Hynd, the festival’s ongoing New Voices series, whereby three musicians each year are invited to create 50 minutes of original music, is one of its most enduringly fruitful strands.
Today, such commissions are almost commonplace on the UK folk scene, but back then they were unheard of, a change for which New Voices can claim major credit.
Of the nine musicians who joined flute/whistle player and pianist Hamish Napier in the Strathclyde Suite to debut his instrumental suite The River ( *****), a marvellously multi-layered paean to the Spey, which runs past his childhood home, four are veterans of their own New Voices commissions, and Napier himself has previously performed in five. All that experience certainly told, right from a scintillating start with The Mayfly, a brilliantly vivid evocation of those ephemeral creatures’ spectacular mating swarms.
While his chosen line-up largely reflected Napier’s favoured instruments, featuring a flute/whistle quartet, piano and keyboards (plus double bass, percussion and canntaireachd vocals), the ensuing title track offered the first of myriad rewarding contrasts, its tranquil, murmurous flow highlighting such richly varied tones and textures as throaty alto flute and chiming Rhodes piano. The inspiration behind subsequent sections included a notorious Spey kelpie, the Highland logging trade, a locally celebrated raft-race and the ultimately cyclical nature of all existence – the last epitomised in Napier’s tale of a legendary fisherman’s ashes, scattered on the river, being promptly eaten by a shoal of trout. The music throughout aptly bubbled and teemed with ideas.
Later that day at St Andrews in the Square, the mesmerising young Scottish singer-songwriter Siobhan Wilson and Friends (5stars) often had their audience raptly holding its breath, amid the venue’s lovely acoustic, as the most sublime vocals and harmonies filled the air. Adam Holmes’s and Roddy Woomble’s respectively gruff, yearningly resonant tones both juxtaposed alluringly with Wilson’s airy, silky yet intensely emotive delivery, but the most magical collaborative moments came in cahoots with former Delgado Emma Pollock. Sharing material by both singers, plus a delectable cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Chanson de Prévert, their bewitchingly intertwined voices recalled the McGarrigles’ uncanny charms. When Wilson sang alone – elegantly accompanied by harp, fiddle and Stuart Nisbet’s seasoned guitar work – other echoes ranged from Joni Mitchell to Lily Allen, via any number of the most expressively eloquent jazz, country or torch-song divas, while her songwriting’s classic calibre even brought Cole Porter to mind. Following a first encore flanked by her pals, Wilson almost stole her own show with a second, solo reappearance, distilling pure, untrammelled longing into the valedictory Blame the Moon, and affirming still further her status as a hugely exciting talent.
Back in the Strathclyde Suite, yet more proof of the world-leading variety and virtuosity encompassed by Scotland’s music today came in Monday’s performance by Edinburgh-based alt-classical troupe Mr McFall’s Chamber, with Tanino Dúo (*****). All the way from Buenos Aires, the latter perform tango and other Argentinian folk music, but replace the traditional bandonéon, or tango accordion, with Santiago Álvarez’s astounding artistry on chromatic harmonica, partnered by Fernando Sánchez’s intricate, ultra-responsive guitar. Displaying phenomenal control of both breath and facial muscles, Álvarez’s playing swept the full gamut of tango’s passions.
Taking the same stage 24 hours later were the Scottish/Irish dream-team of Uist Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, Flook flautist and whistle player Brian Finnegan, Altan accordionist Dermot Byrne and Nairn multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass (****) originally assembled for an Irish tour last autumn. MacInnes’s voice is another remarkable instrument, its potently complex timbre a blend of liquid soul, husky velvet and lived-in bluesy grit, equally compelling here in effervescent puirt-a-beul sets and a stunningly stark, dark exile’s love-song, spookily accompanied by Vass’s bowed tenor guitar.
Opening the show, award-winning Scottish trio Talisk - Mohsen Amini on concertina, fiddler Hayley Keenan and guitarist Craig Irving – matched pyrotechnic wildness with locked-on precision, honey-sweet lyricism with unbridled exhilaration, in a sound so dense yet spacious as to seemingly double the power of three.