The Grit Orchestra’s debut at the 2015 Celtic Connections opening concert was a landmark in the festival’s history. This massed gathering of Scotland’s classical, jazz and folk fraternities was an orchestra like no other, joining forces to celebrate the Martyn Bennett album after which they were named with such resounding success that their return was inevitable.
Bothy Culture and Beyond, Hydro, Glasgow ****
So, in Celtic Connections 25th year, the festival has surpassed itself with its most ambitious, theatrical and slightly bonkers event to date as the orchestra reconvened under the baton of the irrepressible Greg Lawson to perform an epic arrangement of another Bennett album, Bothy Culture, in the vast and challenging environs of the Hydro, with additional thrills, spills and twirls from All or Nothing Aerial Dance Theatre and stunt cyclists Danny MacAskill and Alistair Clarkson.
The orchestra is an even bigger beast on this outing with an additional backline of ace Scottish fiddlers, including the likes of Duncan Chisholm, Aidan O’Rourke and Chris Stout, and vocalist Innes Watson on what might best be described as blathering. But appropriately for an album which is all about the dance, the first element to impact was Iain Sandilands’ glistening, fluid and compelling percussion, ushering in a sonic spectacular with the unruly energy of an Orcadian Strip the Willow.
The filmic sweep of Aye? was accompanied by an aerial routine on the silks, but there was no visual embellishment required for the psychedelic folk odyssey Shputnik in Glenshiel with its dialogue between Celtic whistles and funky saxophones, or the Turkish tones of Ud the Doudouk, a veritable swell of humanity which could not be contained.
The magnificent Blackbird, with full-bodied vocals from Fiona Hunter and the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir, was MacAskill’s cue to reprise his daredevil ride across Skye’s Cuillin Ridge in the form of a silly but fun assault course around the venue, culminating in a ride up the Cuillins-shaped stage backdrop.
Later, his colleague Clarkson, unencumbered by injury, executed a more elaborate bike dance, and a trio of aerialists tumbled and twirled beautifully above the orchestra. There were less spectacular but more emotional contributions from actor David Hayman, reciting Sorley MacLean’s poem Hallaig against the dramatic, cinematic swell of strings and characterful chirrup of whistles on the track of the same name, while lone piper Finlay MacDonald brought the meditative, expansive Waltz for Hector to a soulful close. But, even after an encore of Grit hits, there was still a hunger for more from this most visceral of groups.