Given the international folk scene’s near-quantum growth and diversification over the past two decades, for a band to maintain a genuine premier-league ranking throughout that time is no small feat.
In the case of Irish-American outfit Solas (*****), who kicked off their 20th anniversary year in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall on Thursday, a key factor - allied to powerhouse instrumental work - has been their immaculate taste in singers, in whom they’ve had quite a turnover; current incumbent Moira Smiley being the sixth.
This history lent itself neatly to a special celebratory line-up, reuniting today’s five-piece – also featuring multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, fiddler Winner Horan, accordionist Mick McAuley and guitarist Eamon McElholm - with all Smiley’s predecessors during a deftly varied, abundantly rewarding set. Solas’s trademark rhythmic verve bracingly buoyed the jigs and reels.
On the song front, Smiley set the bar high with covers of the achingly lovely Standing on the Shore, originally by Sweeney’s Men, and the old Youngbloods’ hit Darkness, Darkness, where Horan’s fiddle potently echoed the vocals’ compelling urgency.
The following night, down at the Glad Café, BMX Bandit Duglas T. Stewart and the Glad Community Choir (*****) paid affectionate homage to the unique genius of Ivor Cutler, marking a decade since his death, and what would have been his 92nd birthday this month.
Aidan Moffat clearly relished lending his own distinctive tones to darkly hilarious readings from Glasgow Dreamer, while after the interval, 20 members of the venue’s resident choir sang more selections from Cutler’s numerous recordings.
Back in the Concert Hall, Saturday lunchtime’s Strathspey and Surreal Society (****) premièred four new compositions which both drew upon and experimented with the traditions of Scotland’s strathspey and reel societies, in whose ranks many of today’s star players first practised their craft. The music was written for 20 fiddlers, including two of the composers - Aidan O’Rourke and Shona Mooney – with such fellow luminaries as Adam Sutherland, Christ Stout, Ross Couper and Patsy Reid, plus six top Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students. Each pieces took its own inventive tack in teasing apart the somewhat rigid unison associated with the societies’ style of playing, with Mooney ringing a series of adroit changes on the melody to Burns’s A Man’s A Man For A’ That, while pianist Jenn Austin’s aptly- playfully deconstructed and reconfigured traditional tune forms. O’Rourke’s 100 Days incorporated fragments of such tunes into looping, minimalist-style patterns and syncopated grooves, contrasting with a sweetly elegiac middle section, and De’il Amang the Fiddlers, by project instigator Simon Thoumire, added a series of cunning twists to classic session tunes.
At the same venue that evening, Celtic Connections’ fourth successive Roaming Roots Revue (****) achieved a first-ever sellout for what’s been dubbed “the indie Transatlantic Sessions”, and what a fabulous cornucopia of all-time great songs, and all-time great voices it was. With a lavish cast of UK and US guest singers - superbly backed throughout by an extended house-band line-up of curator Roddy Hart’s Lonesome Fire - this year’s theme of Troubadours gave them fruitfully broad scope in choosing covers to sing alongside their own: perhaps only at Celtic Connections could songs by Robert Burns and Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen and Amy Winehouse feature on the same set-list.
Highlights came too thick and fast to count, from Alabama-born newcomer Anderson East’s stunningly wracked, vintage-soul passion in Van Morrison’s ‘Tupelo Honey’ to our own Justin Currie’s characteristically searing ‘Brilliant Disguise’. The final guest appearance was by Kris Kristofferson, an authentic old-school troubadour if ever there was one, whose half-dozen most timeless compositions left barely a dry eye in the house.