Brian Ferguson: Celtic Connections is raising the bar

It is a rainy Thursday night in January and a packed house is squeezing into the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow.
Audiences were blown away by Celtic Connections 2018 flagship event that took place in The SSE Hydro, Glasgow..Audiences were blown away by Celtic Connections 2018 flagship event that took place in The SSE Hydro, Glasgow..
Audiences were blown away by Celtic Connections 2018 flagship event that took place in The SSE Hydro, Glasgow..

The staff might have thought they had seen and heard it all at the famous venue over the years.

But a whole new audience was about to fill its stalls and balconies as Celtic Connections deployed the 114-year-old venue for the first time.

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It was therefore an unlikely location for the unfolding of an event which almost completely redefined what a live stage show could be.

It was also the second time in the space of a week that I had the same feeling at the festival.

The Pavilion show was billed as a “one-off” celebration of singer-songwriter Michael Marra, yet it was almost impossible to imagine it would not see the light of day again.

Hosted by author James Robertson, it was partly a live re-imagining of his recent biography of the “Bard of Dundee”, also something of a mould-breaker, with imagined conversations with Marra interspersed with memories from his family, musical friends and collaborators. Robertson brought many of them together on stage for the “Arrest This Moment” show at the Pavilion, including his brother Chris and daughter Alice, Karine Polwart, Rab Noakes and the dance choreographer Frank McConnell.

The part-chat show format allowed them the opportunity to speak about Marra as well as perform highlights from his rich back catalogue, accompanied by photographs of the man himself on a screen behind the stage, glimpses of hand-written song lyrics, posters and flyers, archive audio recordings and even rare on-stage footage.

It was very far removed from the traditional tribute night format Celtic Connections has excelled in over the years - including the show staged just a few months after Marra’s death in the Royal Concert Hall in 2013.

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In many ways, Arrest This Moment was just as remarkable as the big headline-grabbing show of Celtic Connections, which honoured the legacy of another musician taken far too soon.

Plenty has been written and said about Bothy Culture and Beyond, the audacious show staged at the Hydro arena the previous Saturday.

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In terms of its scale and ambition, the spectacular celebration of Martyn Bennett’s album was beyond anything Celtic Connections had previously attempted. It triumphed on almost every level.

With a vast standing audience, it was an occasion that encouraged far more audience interaction than the debut of Greg Lawson’s Grit Orchestra at the Royal Concert Hall in 2015.

There was little prospect of hush when cyclist Danny MacAskill was careering around the arena or the aerial dancers from All or Nothing were ascending above the orchestra or over the heads of the audience - never mind during the moment of euphoria produced by the orchestra.

The entire event was captured by the BBC for a stunning highlights show on Saturday

The prime-time BBC screening as the festival was drawing to a close was a fitting tribute to the vision of Donald Shaw shortly before he confirmed this was his last time as artistic director of Celtic Connections. He has made it known for some time that the work involved in programming the festival had become too much for one person as it has rapidly expanded.

With the festival breaking such new ground and raising the bar to new levels, it will be fascinating to see where it goes next.