Celtic Connections review: Pilgrimer, Glasgow

Karine Polwart was one of those reworking Joni Mitchell works with fine results. Picture: Contributed
Karine Polwart was one of those reworking Joni Mitchell works with fine results. Picture: Contributed
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And so the benchmark has been set early, as one of the most ambitious and potentially risky projects of this year’s Celtic Connections delivered in spades.

Celtic Connections | Pilgrimer – A Re-Imagining of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira | Glasgow Royal Concert Hall | Rating ****

Joni Mitchell’s Hejira is writer James Robertson’s favourite album, so that he would even want to touch it, never mind reinterpret it in Scots shows some guts. Who knows what blood, sweat and tears went into the project – the results felt effortless and free-flowing, even when Robertson made audacious substitutions such as Dundee for Memphis or 
St Columba for Amelia Earhart, the subject of Amelia.

He laid the scene with a spoken word intro over gently undulating guitar from Steven Polwart, who curated the music for the concert, along with sister Karine. She, in turn, demonstrated a natural feel for the rhythmic switches in Mitchell’s vocal melodies, engaging in a lovely lithe dance with Fraser Fifield’s fluttering low whistle.

There was infectious excitement in her voice as she introduced guitarist Larry Carlton, who played on Hejira and seemed as delighted as the audience with proceedings. Polwart was not the only shrewd vocal match – Annie Grace’s rich alto resonated with a bruised soul, while Rod Paterson added an earthier texture again, and almost stole the show with a warmly witting Franco-Scottish repurposing of Blue Motel Room completely with topical Forth Road Bridge joke.

The instrumentalists got their moment of glory with a warm jazz wigout en route to the thoughtful terminus of this “travelogue of love and life”.

If the first half was daring and rewarding, the second was heartfelt and respectful as a succession of talented singers demonstrated just how much they owe to the Mitchell songbook. Julie Fowlis reneged on her offer to sing a Mitchell song in Gaelic when she realised there was no translation for Cactus Tree, but Canadian singer Rose Cousins failed to heed her own warning about Blue being “one of those Joni Mitchell songs that should never be covered”.

Kathryn Joseph was a little more adventurous with her sparse, rhythmic accompaniment to Both Sides Now, while The Magdalene Laundries was divested of its “happy chords”. However, there was nothing but happiness flowing between stage and audience during the richly arranged massed versions of Free Man In Paris and The Circle Game which closed this concert in perfect harmony.