Brian Ferguson: Celtic festival lacks connection

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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I HAVE a few strange habits, but one of the oddest must be hoarding concert tickets. Not only do they trigger long-forgotten memories – did I really go to see T’Pau? – but the ticket prices alone have great curiosity value.

Buried in one shoebox there are a couple of tickets from the very first Celtic Connections. Watching some YouTube clips from one of the bands I saw at that fledgling festival – the long-forgotten bluegrass outfit The Humpff Family – is a reminder of how long ago this was.

The dawning realisation on venturing into the infamous festival club over this weekend that many of those present would not have been born when Celtic Connections was launched was a jolt.

It took me a few years to discover this bewildering phenomenon at the heart of the festival. But a couple of visits to the old Central Hotel club had me hooked, despite its slightly shambolic nature.

I can vividly recall the Herculean effort it took to battle your way from the main cabaret area – where a convenor belt of bands would appear well into the small hours – to get to either the bar or the toilets. Bodies seemed to be everywhere, and music or song appeared to echo from every part of the building. It was madness, but it worked. To an extent.

As Celtic Connections grew in popularity and international stature, it seemed incongruous that top-class musicians were being put up in and performing in an increasingly shabby hotel.

A move to a nearby Holiday Inn, a much plusher affair, triggered outrage over its bar prices, but provided a better setting for the main entertainment. Then it was knocked down, for a redevelopment that never happened.

A return to the Central Hotel was short-lived, the entire place going into administration mid-festival, weeks after asbestos was discovered, and it was then closed for a lengthy refurbishment. A relocation to Glasgow School of Art’s union bar was also short-lived after it too was knocked down to make way for a major redevelopment.

Last year’s foray into a former comedy club was largely given the thumbs-down by audiences because of the uncomfortable surroundings. This year it is based in a neighbouring Australian theme bar, which seemed to cope admirably enough with its first, sold-out, weekend but has a capacity woefully inadequate to accommodate demand for tickets.

Donald Shaw, the artistic director of Celtic Connections, knows full well how important the festival club is to the event. Many of the 20th anniversary testimonies before the festival from musicians in The Scotsman and on last weekend’s BBC documentary make it clear how influential it has been.

But his frustrations about an inability to find a permanent home for it, spelled out in no uncertain terms last week, should hopefully be rippling through tourism and events circles in Glasgow.

Despite the festival’s apparent best efforts, either it has been priced out of the market for setting up camp in a suitable hotel willing to embrace the festival, or it is simply not wanted.

For an event worth £10 million to the economy, it seems a shabby state of affairs. Surely someone out there could broker a meeting or two to try to try to find a proper solution? Or is the city happy to have things as they are?

Unfortunately, the lack of a proper festival club is the least of Celtic Connections’ troubles this year. Why half of the Royal Concert Hall has been closed down when the festival is on has mystified many. The BBC, staging an unprecedented number of broadcasts this year, has had to set up a makeshift studio in a restaurant space, following a ruling that key spaces could not be used in the run-up to building work on an extension starting.

The acclaimed open stage has been relocated out of the council-owned building to a church. Its “late-night sessions”, a more civilised version of the club format, have been scrapped. The atmosphere in the building, the hub for the festival since that first year, was notably diluted on Friday, when it would normally have been thronged with activity.

Both of these issues have made it a testing year for the event when celebrations should have been the order of the day.

Any arguments about the benefits of Celtic Connections were won long ago. Yet the question has to be asked – is there a wider complacency about the event within the city?