MARTYN BENNETT DAY *****
GLASGOW ROYAL CONCERT HALL/OLD FRUITMARKET, GLASGOW
ON 14 JANUARY, 1994, the then 21-year-old Martyn Bennett made his debut at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, supporting Mouth Music at the first Celtic Connections. On 30 January, 2005, as last year's festival ended, Bennett finally lost his long battle with cancer. In the interim, over four celebrated albums and many unforgettable live shows, the multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer emerged as one of the most extraordinarily gifted and far-sighted artists Scotland has produced. And so on 14 January, 2006, over 100 like-minded musicians gathered to play two spellbinding concerts, with the aim of carrying forward Bennett's profound and multi-faceted legacy.
The most striking aspect of the afternoon's performance, exploring the more classically oriented dimensions of Bennett's oeuvre in the company of Mr McFall's Chamber, the Scottish Opera Orchestra and guest soloists, was the loud-and-clear sense of Bennett's voice speaking through the music. And this in a programme that ranged from his Fantasy and Toccata for solo piano, through a resplendent new arrangement of Liberation, to the heart-stopping magnificence of Mackay's Memoirs, his suite for bagpipes, clarsach and orchestra - plus Michael Marra and Psalm 121.
And the wee man himself was surely smiling down on the Fruitmarket that night as his trad/clubland fusion band, Cuillin Music, staged their first reunion, climaxing in an almighty rammy of massed pipes, drums and neo-pagan dancers.
FAIRPORT CONVENTION ***
THE GARAGE, GLASGOW
IN AN interesting piece of synchronous programming at Celtic Connections, Fairport Convention followed their fellow folk-rock pioneers, Steeleye Span, into The Garage. Fairport are more frequent visitors, but the band continue to give good value.
They opened with their version of the traditional ballad Sir Patrick Spens, and went on to range widely over their back catalogue, from early classics like Crazy Man Michael and Walk Awhile to more recent additions like the country-tinged Waiting for the Tide to Come In and mandolin player Chris Leslie's Over the Falls.
Leslie also plays fiddle and indulged in a couple of duelling fiddles episodes with Ric Sanders in the instrumental romp Canny Capers and Leslie's own John Goudie.
Ralph McTell's The Hiring Fair has been another staple of the band's repertoire since they introduced it in 1985, but Simon Nichol doesn't quite do the song justice. They finished on nostalgic ground with that quintessential Fairport favourite, Matty Groves, and returned for an encore with Meet on the Ledge.
Young Scottish fiddler Lori Watson's trio had opened for Steeleye Span with a well-received set, and it was the turn of Braebach to show off their considerable prowess here. The band's energised music went down well.
OLD FRUITMARKET, GLASGOW
THE rash of cancellations, poor attendances and general controversy that has surrounded the opening weekend of Celtic Connections did not extend to include a successful opening night at the refurbished Old Fruitmarket, although Lunasa did experience their own hiccup to add to the general air of misfortune in this 13th running of the festival.
The Irish headliners had not quite made it to the end of their opening set of reels when the fire alarms went off. Perhaps as a result, Lunasa seemed a little flat when proceedings eventually got under way again, but their set gradually took on the kind of momentum expected from this well-regarded five-piece.
Kevin Crawford's general exuberance helped to restore enthusiasm after the enforced break, and his biting flute playing was a prominent feature of their sets. Sean Smith's excellent fiddle playing wasn't always as easy to hear, while Trevor Hutchinson's double bass provided much-needed body in this large space.
The period features and stone floors remain in place in the refurbished venue, but the sound was a little disappointing, and may need tweaking for essentially acoustic line-ups.
STEELEYE SPAN ****
THE GARAGE, GLASGOW
AS MADDY Prior remarked, The Garage is not the kind of venue that Steeleye Span normally play, but the veteran English folk-rock band rose to the challenge in fine style on a rare live appearance in Glasgow.
Along with Fairport Convention and The Strawbs, Steeleye Span were leading lights in the folk-rock wave of the late '60s, and there was no shortage of genuine band history on stage. Prior was a founder member, while fiddler Pete Knight and bassist Rick Kemp go back to early-70s incarnations. Drummer Liam Genocky joined in 1989, and only guitarist Ken Nicol is a recent recruit.
Maddy Prior's voice has darkened over the years, but she remains the trump card in their music, and her delivery of old favourites like Tam Lin and the more recent Van Dieman's Land revealed that her vocal artistry is undiminished.
Knight, Kemp and Nicol made their own contributions as lead vocalists, while the band's trademark four-part harmony singing was heard to striking unaccompanied effect on another old favourite, The King. There was never any sense of simply going through the motions, other than in slightly routine versions of their early-70s chart hits All Around My Hat and Gaudete.