Celtic Connections celebrates its 20th birthday next week, here some festival regulars tell what it means to them.
MUSICIAN AND BROADCASTER PHIL CUNNINGHAM HAS BEEN A PERENNIAL CELTIC CONNECTIONS FIXTURE SINCE THE INAUGURAL FESTIVAL IN 1994.
“THE organisers actually consulted me when they were planning that first one, and I told them they were mad. A festival in Scotland in the middle of winter: what were they thinking? For me personally, Celtic Connections has provided massive opportunities for trying out new things, starting with The Highlands and Islands Suite in 1997. That was a huge undertaking – 170 musicians onstage – and pretty life-changing for me as a composer. But the informal opportunities can be just as important, like chatting backstage to Beth Nielsen Chapman, someone I’d always really admired – and the next thing we’re writing a song together. It’s all very inspirational and catalytic.
“One of my favourite non-musical memories is from the original Festival Club, at the Central Hotel. I stumbled off to bed there about 5am one night – then got shaken awake a couple of hours later to discover I’d fallen asleep in the lift. The nice bit was that someone had covered me up with a blanket, and written my room number on my arm.”
• Phil Cunningham performs at the Opening Concert, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 17 January, and in the Transatlantic Sessions, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1 and 3 February.
MAIRÉAD NÍ MHAONAIGH
AS THE SINGER AND FIDDLER WITH ALTAN, ONE OF IRELAND’S BEST-LOVED TRADITIONAL BANDS, MAIRÉAD NÍ MHAONAIGH APPEARED AT THE VERY FIRST CELTIC CONNECTIONS, RETURNING SINCE ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS.
“I remember that first year feeling like the start of something really exciting – partly because the connections were immediately so meaningful. They’ve always been particularly close for me, coming from Donegal, which has such strong links with Scotland, plus my grandmother came from Glasgow, so it is a kind of home from home. But more generally there’s an intimacy about the festival, despite its size, that enables people to mix more easily, so as well as all the great music there is a real sense of people getting together and celebrating what they have in common.
“It’s also always been a festival that encourages you to do something different, try out new ideas – we had John Prine as a guest one time, which was amazing, and a few years back I just loved being part of the String Sisters project, bringing together female fiddlers from around the world: when you’re in a longtime band like ourselves, that kind of thing is such a rare treat.”
• Altan & Friends play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 23 January.
CURRENTLY LONGLISTED FOR A BEST ORIGINAL SONG OSCAR, AFTER FEATURING IN THE BRAVE SOUNDTRACK, GAELIC SINGER JULIE FOWLIS BEGAN HER VOCAL CAREER WITH THE BAND DOCHAS, WINNERS OF A DANNY KYLE OPEN STAGE AWARD AT CELTIC CONNECTIONS 2000.
“One of the brilliant things at early festivals was going to see concerts by musicians you’d always looked up to and been inspired by, then ending up having a tune or song with them afterwards: you don’t often get to play with your heroes in any other genre. I remember seeing Altan back then, and just hearing these traditional tunes and Irish Gaelic songs up there on the big Concert Hall stage felt really empowering – so being in the same session with Mairéad and the lads was just an enormous buzz.
“And then time goes by, and you find yourself on stage with these people – doing the Transatlantic Sessions in 2011 was a big highlight for me. I have this vivid memory of sitting backstage mid-gig with Kathy Mattea and Eddi Reader, working out harmonies for May You Never in about 20 minutes flat – we’d decided to add it in as a tribute to John Martyn. I just remember thinking, ‘How lucky am I?’”
• Julie Fowlis performs at the Opening Concert, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 17 January, and Sabhal mor Ostaig 40th Anniversary, City Halls, 19 January. She also co-hosts the Radio 2 Folk Awards, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 30 January.
DOBRO MAESTRO AND MULTIPLE GRAMMY-WINNER JERRY DOUGLAS IS JOINT MUSICAL DIRECTOR (WITH ALY BAIN) OF THE TRANSATLANTIC SESSIONS.
“I first played Celtic Connections in its third or fourth year at the Barony Hall, on a bill with Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. My guitar strap broke at one point, and the guitar dropped down beside a stone pillar, scratching the finish: I still think of that night every time I see the mark.
“As a musician, one of the things I love about Celtic Connections, compared to other big festivals, is that you don’t feel like an exhibit on display. You can settle in and hang out for a while, rather than just flying in and out for your gig, so you get to feel part of the city – and the city is so much part of the festival. It doesn’t even feel like a festival – it’s more like one great big gig; I always end up onstage with a whole bunch of different people I never planned to. And as long as I make my way to Mother India at least once while I’m there, I’ve had a successful trip.”
• The Transatlantic Sessions are at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1 and 3 February.
BEST KNOWN FOR HER PERFORMANCE AT THE OPENING OF THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT IN 1999, SHEENA WELLINGTON IS ONE OF SCOTLAND’S FINEST TRADITIONAL SINGERS.
“I was another one who thought they were daft, putting on a major festival in January – but I was very glad to eat my words: all credit to the original organisers for having the vision, and the courage to go for it. Celtic Connections has been hugely important in building confidence and profile across a whole range of Celtic and folk-related music. It’s been constantly willing to experiment, while never losing touch with its traditional roots.
“I’ve had some truly wonderful concerts there over the years – like opening for Stéphane Grappelli and Frankie Gavin in 1996 – but one of the things I’m proudest of is helping to set up the education programme, back in the very early days. It’s given tens of thousands of Glasgow schoolkids their first experience of live music, or of playing an instrument – there must be a good chunk of the festival’s audience today, and a fair few younger musicians, who got bitten by the bug that way.”
• Sheena Wellington performs at the Opening Concert, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 17 January; with Tony Benn, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 26 January, and in Songs of Struggle, Mitchell Theatre, 29 January.
AFTER THREE CONSECUTIVE SOLO VISITS, RAUL MALO RETURNS TO CELTIC CONNECTIONS 2013 FRONTING HIS FRESHLY-REFORMED, GRAMMY-WINNING BAND THE MAVERICKS, AHEAD OF THE FEBRUARY RELEASE OF NEW ALBUM IN TIME.
“For starters, I think it’s fantastic that a festival of this magnitude is so supported by everyone, from its audience to local government, and even to state level: that speaks volumes about the kind of country and society you guys want to live in, and I think it’s beautiful, I really do.
“Being part of the Transatlantic Sessions last year was something truly rare and special for me – but the festival as a whole is all about highlighting how connected musicians are; you really can feel that same spirit among everyone there. It’s the same with the audiences, too, the crowds are just awesome: you can tell people are there because they genuinely love music.
“I’m really excited to be coming back with the Mavericks – and thrilled that our first UK show is in Glasgow, before we start touring the album. It’s a whole new era for us, and I can’t think of a better place to start it.”
• The Mavericks play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 22 January.
MULTI-AWARD-WINNING SCOTTISH SINGER-SONGWRITER KARINE POLWART RECENTLY TOPPED NUMEROUS YEAR-END CRITICS’ POLLS WITH HER FIFTH ALBUM, TRACES.
“It’s no exaggeration to say I wouldn’t have a career as a musician without Celtic Connections. The festival started just as I was getting into the folk scene, and the first few years I was there as a punter, pigging out on great concerts. Then in 1999 I won a Danny Kyle Open Stage Award with Malinky, which got us a record contract and a bunch of festival bookings – and a year later, I left my job. I’ve had so many experiences at the festival that just wouldn’t happen anywhere else in the world – performing with classical orchestras, in some of the big new commissions; the Scots Women concert in 2001, with 17 other singers; the Unusual Suspects’ first ever gig in 2003: all really groundbreaking, unprecedented shows. And through all these connections and collaborations, Celtic Connections has become a key meeting-ground for musicians in Scotland across all genres, helping create a mutual understanding and respect that’s been hugely valuable for Scottish music as a whole.”
• Karine Polwart plays the City Halls, 2 February
HIGHLAND-BORN FIDDLER AIDAN O’ROURKE FEATURES IN TWO OF TODAY’S LEADING UK FOLK ACTS, LAU AND KAN.
“My first Celtic Connections was in 1997 with my first band, Tabache – and it was like being thrown into some kind of whirlpool: I’d had no idea about the whole late-night scene at the Central Hotel.
“The Festival Club was still pretty new and anarchic at that point: I’d regularly be running about rounding up whatever musicians I could find to fill in for some band who’d gone AWOL. We’d go up to someone’s room, throw tunes at each other for ten minutes and then go onstage – and often those were the best gigs of all.
“Being given a New Voices commission at Celtic Connections in 2003 was a real turning-point for me: the confidence it gave me to write, and to approach some of my favourite musicians to take part, even though I didn’t really know them, was really quite life-changing: pretty much everything I’ve done since, and some of my closest musical relationships today, can be traced back to that experience.”
• Aidan O’Rourke performs with Lau in the Roaming Roots Revue, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 20 January, and with Kan, Old Fruitmarket, 24 January.
• The 20th Celtic Connections festival runs from 17 January until 3 February at various venues across Glasgow. Full programme at www.celticconnections.com