Scotsman folk critic Jim Gilchrist picks his Celtic Connections highlights

The Seamus Egan Project
The Seamus Egan Project
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In a programme as bewilderingly diverse as Celtic Connections’ 2020 iteration, its content ranging from orchestral extravaganzas to bothy ballads, recommendations teeter on the brink of invidiousness. Here, however, are a few choices from the festival’s 300-plus events.

What better way to launch a new decade than a statement of intent? The opening concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (GRCH) on 16 January sees the mighty GRIT Orchestra, under the baton of Greg Lawson, mark the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. Formed originally to play music by the late Martyn Bennett, the orchestra reconvenes to perform The Declaration, a series of commissions from such established figures as fiddlers Patsy Reid and Chris Stout, harpist Catriona McKay, saxophonist Paul Towndrow and piper-saxophonist Fraser Fifield.The following night at the Concert Hall should also be a winner, with the Highland band Breabach celebrating 15 years since they won the Festival’s Danny Kyle Open Stage contest. The concert also features the Seamus Egan Project, with the Irish-American multi-instrumentalist presenting music from his eponymous new album.


Two Scottish folk veterans mark anniversaries of their own, with Archie Fisher celebrating his 80th year with Rab Noakes, Barbara Dickson and others in Archieology (Mitchell Theatre, 17th), while Jimmie Macgregor at 90 Years Young sees the indefatigable singer and broadcaster reminiscing with friends at Òran Mór on the 22nd. Another significant anniversary is accordionist and composer Phil Cunningham’s Big Six-O Birthday Bash at City Halls on 26 January, promising “as many musical pals as will squeeze onstage”, while another folk icon, Peggy Seeger, is joined at the Mitchell Theatre on the 18th by sons Calum and Neill MacColl.


The Scottish Government has designated 2020 as Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters and, accordingly, the festival presents an all-afternoon Coastal Connections event at GRCH on 18 January, including such Highlands and islands performers as Capercaillie, Daimh, Julie Fowlis and Skerryvore as well as other nautically themed acts, including community theatre specialists Vision Mechanics with their ten-metre high “sea goddess”, Storm.


This year’s Irish input includes  the formidable, Sligo-rooted band Dervish (GRCH, 19th) reprising their Great Irish Songbook album while, as ever, a vibrant input of Americana embraces stars including Iris De Ment (GRCH, 20 January), Anais Mitchell (Old Fruitmarket, 29th and St Luke’s, 30th) and virtuoso banjoists Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn (City Halls, 18th). And, directed as usual by the fiddle-dobro duo of Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas, the 17th year of Transatlantic Sessions (GRCH, 31st) includes bluegrass mandolinist Sierra Hull, singer-songwriter Cahalen Morrison and Australian-born, Nashville-based guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel, as well as Scotland’s Rachel Sermanni.


The Roaming Roots Revue (GRCH, 26th), meanwhile, presents Born to Run, a tribute to Bruce Springsteen featuring Scots songsmith Karine Polwart, Irish folk-pop singer Lisa Hannigan and others.


Looking across the North Sea, the festival’s Showcase Scotland partner for this year is Finland, bringing a clutch of Nordic artists including the mighty fiddle band Frigg (City Halls, 1 Feb), currently celebrating their 20th year. The festival’s ever-fruitful New Voices commissions include North Uist accordionist and composer Pàdruig Morrison (Strathclyde Suite, 19 January), who blends his native Gaelic tradition with contemporary soundscapes and archive material on Hebridean life.


There’s jazz as well, including acclaimed folk-jazz big band Fat Suit at the Drygate Brewery on 17 January while the young vocals-piano duo of Luca Manning and Fergus McCreadie, both award winners in their own right, play the Blue Arrow on the 22nd.


To end on a theatrical note, on 23 January the Tron hosts English singer-songwriter Rowan Rheinghans’ gently spun but utterly riveting one-woman show Dispatches on the Red Dress, inspired by her German grandmother’s wartime experiences. Also at the Tron, on the 25th, Jock’s Jocks is piper and scholar Gary West’s stage distillation of the astonishing archive of First World War experience, gleaned by bothy balladeer Jock Duncan from fellow North-East farm workers, often in rich Doric.



To see the full programme, visit www.celticconnections.com