Scotsman folk critic Jim Gilchrist looks forward to the largest winter festival of its kind
Launched into the dreich, post-festive doldrums of January 1994 with 60-odd events centred on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and in the face of much cynicism, the first tentative Celtic Connections attracted a surprising 27,000 people. Going on to soundly trounce the naysayers, it is now the largest winter music festival of its kind, presenting an astonishing 2,100-plus artists from 30 countries during its 25th anniversary last January.
Celtic Connections 2019, however, is set to outdo that bar-raiser with what its creative producer Donald Shaw describes as the “most diverse and eclectic festival yet,” featuring a host of cross-cultural and cross-genre collaborations, as well as a bemusingly expansive programme of roots-based and traditional musicians from Scotland, Ireland and much further afield, from Wales to Galicia, Iceland to Mali.
Marking this year’s theme of passing traditions between generations, and recognising the number of formidable young musicians who have emerged from Scotland’s vigorous traditional music scene during the festival’s lifetime, next Thursday night’s opening concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall will revisit a 2004 Celtic Connections show when Donald Shaw’s Harvest project combined a host of then-emergent talent – many now familiar names – with top folk performers.
This fresh extravaganza, Syne of the Times, will see as many as 70 young musicians from the Fèisean Gaelic music movement across Scotland joining members of the Orcadian youth music programme Hadhirgaan and, from Galicia in north-west Spain, the folk orchestra SonDeSeu. Apart from Harvest, they’ll perform extracts from previously acclaimed commissions such as Duncan Chisholm’s Kin and Lauren MacColl’s The Seer, with Shaw and fellow Celtic Connections veterans Michael McGoldrick, Aidan O’Rourke and Julie Fowlis guesting through the show.
Delve further into that ever more compendious programme, however, and you’ll see established large-capacity venues such as the GRCH main hall and its New Auditorium, the City Halls and the Old Fruitmarket hosting numerous, punter-attracting big names, such as longstanding festival favourites Cherish the Ladies, the gorgeous-voiced Rhiannon Giddens (joined by the Scottish Opera Orchestra), veteran singer-songwriter Graham Nash, Loudon Wainwright III, Judy Collins and Kathy Mattea.
Some rather less expected names include Sixties female rock champion Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes at the Old Fruitmarket, while no less than the Modfather himself, Paul Weller, joins Eddi Reader, Ross (Blue Rose Code) Wilson and bluesman Eric Bibb among others in Grace and Danger, a celebration of the music of the late John Martyn. Weller, who gained stardom with The Jam and The Style Council and through a subsequent solo career, was a great admirer, singing with Martyn on his 2004 album On the Cobbles.
A wide range of other venues also comes into play, ranging from the legendary Barrowland Ballroom, which hosts what promises to be a full-on evening with “acid-crofters” Shooglenifty and the new but already acclaimed Kinnaris Quintet, to the beautiful little Mackintosh Church at Queen’s Cross which will host the inspired harp-kora partnership of Wales’ Catrin Finch and Malian Seckou Keita.
Cross-cultural collaborations are the stuff of a Connections strand entitled Above the Surface, including the smoky-voiced South Uist singer Kathleen MacInnes with Icelandic string players and former Sigur Rós accompanists amiina. Another African outfit led by Bassekou Kouyate, a virtuoso of the ngoni banjo-lute, also links in with Gaeldom and the vocal trio Sian, while international jazz guests include the celebrated Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan in partnership with Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, and another bill featuring two trios – Snuffbox, including fiddler and Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Charlie Stewart, the other led by the superb Anglo-Bengali pianist Zoe Rahman.
Newly recruited as a venue is the grand old King’s Theatre, where events include the singer-songwriter pairing of Karine Polwart and Kris Drever with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and another gig featuring the irrepressible Blazin’ Fiddles reprising their 20th anniversary frolics, with Capercaillie singer Karen Matheson guesting, along with the Galician vocal and percussion ensemble Tanxugeiras, who made an impact last year.
Galician music features throughout the festival as this year’s “showcase partnership” is with this music-rich corner of Spain, with other Galician acts including gaita bagpiper Anxo Lorenzo and his band joining Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton’s Symbiosis, and singer Monica de Nut with the fine Scots traditional band Malinky.
Further connections include artists from Wales including singer-songwriter Gwyneth Glyn and Welsh-language pop trio Plu, while from Ireland come piper-singer Jarlath Henderson, the band Danú and singers Daoiri Farrell, Gráinne Holland and Keiran Goss. And for two nights, of course, the GRCH presents the ever-popular Transatlantic Sessions, with fiddler Aly Bain and dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas hosting hosting such US luminaries as Gretchen Peters, Mollie Tuttle and, no stranger to Celtic Connections, Tim O’Brien.
This year is the centenary of the birth of Hamish Henderson, the soldier, poet and folklorist often regarded as a father figure to the Scottish folk revival. Accordingly, a Mitchell Theatre concert on the 26th entitled The Rebellious Truth sees singer-musicians such as Lori Watson, Fiona Hunter, Steve Byrne and Mischa MacPherson celebrate Henderson’s legacy, with audio and video recordings evoking the spirit of the man himself.
The same evening, the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland hosts a launch concert for The Little Book of Scottish Folk Songs, a revised reprint of what was originally The Scottish Folksinger, by Norman Buchan and Peter Hall, an indispensable companion to those involved in the early years of the revival – and, arguably, a catalyst for all that followed, including such widely eclectic extravaganzas as Celtic Connections.
Celtic Connections runs from 17 January to 3 February, see www.celticconnections.com