Celtic Connections review: Transatlantic Sessions, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Musicians are often envied for their supposedly cushtie lifestyles and timetables '“ sleeping late; few hours' work of an evening, in between all the jet-setting and partying '“ but Friday's first night of Celtic Connections showpiece Transatlantic Sessions (reprised as ever yesterday, before embarking on a sellout six-date tour) culminated an intensive 12-hour shift for its 16-strong cast, following two previous days' rehearsal.
The Secret Sisters' Lydia Rogers and Laura Rogers PIC: Slaven Vlasic/Getty ImagesThe Secret Sisters' Lydia Rogers and Laura Rogers PIC: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
The Secret Sisters' Lydia Rogers and Laura Rogers PIC: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Transatlantic Sessions, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall ****

In that time, they worked up 20-odd brand-new live arrangements, of material chosen by the five guest vocalist/songwriters, plus solo and ensemble instrumentals from the programme’s joint musical directors, fiddler Aly Bain and dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, and their long-serving eight-man house band.

Spawned from the eponymous TV series – first produced in 1995 – and staged annually by Celtic Connections for nearly two decades, Transatlantic Sessions today is a blue-chip international brand, recently building on those now-regular UK/Irish shows, after each year’s Glasgow performances, with its debut tour Stateside.

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Thanks to the strength of its founding concept – exploring and celebrating the historical kinship between Celtic and US musical traditions – and the consistently stellar calibre of participating artists, catalysed by a likewise eponymous dash of back-porch informality, it’s remained a benchmark of excellence even as the territory it first staked out has been overrun by Americana revivalists.

The balance of perennially familiar A-list players with a shifting guest-list of singers, from both sides of the Pond, pretty much guarantees a high content of one-off, frequently magical collaborative moments, but the precise yield depends on each year’s overall blend of talents, styles and personalities, and the particular chemistry it kindles.

On the singers’ side, 2018’s mix was arrestingly rich in variety and contrast, encompassing Suzy Bogguss’s vividly plaintive cover of

‘Night Rider’s Lament’ (complete with proper cowboy yodelling), and Daoirí Farrell’s gorgeously ardent, yearning tones in ‘The Creggan White Hare’; Shawn Camp’s pungently homespun, hillbilly twang and demon guitar-picking alongside Julie Fowlis’s transcendent Gaelic eloquence.

Even individual contributions spanned diverse bases, as with Fowlis’s limpidly lovely rendition of Anne Briggs’s ‘Go Your Way’, while Alabama first-timers The Secret Sisters – aka recent Grammy nominees Lydia and Laura Rogers – combined brilliantly mercurial harmonic hues with alchemical sibling attunement. Such an outstanding array of timbres, too, produced a corresponding panoply of radiant backing vocals.

Underpinning the thrills of fresh collaboration and new-minted sounds, the über-versatile accompanying line-up – Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker, John Doyle, Danny Thompson, James Mackintosh, Phil Cunningham, Russ Barenberg and Donald Shaw, plus of course Bain and Douglas – superbly matched the singers for sonic diversity and sheer class, on another triumphant night for a pioneering Celtic Connections institution.