Music preview: Jim Gilchrist picks his Celtic Connections highlights

Shawn Colvin PIC: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music
Shawn Colvin PIC: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music
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Contemplating the roots music behemoth that is Glasgow’s Celtic Connections can induce a dizzying bewilderment akin to that induced by the annual first sighting of an Edinburgh Fringe programme. As the programme truncheons you with statistics – 2,100 artists participating in 300 events at 20 venues across the Dear Green Place – choosing just what to attend can be a challenge, although for those nervous of straying beyond the security of their preferred genres, the online programme helpfully lists them under folk, Americana, world, fusion etc. Such choices are always invidious, but here are a few to consider.

The opening 25th Anniversary Concert in Glasgow Royal concert Hall will be suitably celebratory, featuring Cherish the Ladies and Sharon Shannon, both of whom participated in the very first Connections, as well as many more who have played the festival since. The concert’s musical director is jazz-folk pianist Dave Milligan, who also performed in the original event.

A major development sees the festival move into the capacious Hydro for the first time, as violinist and director Greg Lawson reassembles his GRIT Orchestra, formed two years ago for a spectacular arrangement of the late Martyn Bennett’s eponymous album, this time performing music from Bennett’s Bothy Culture album, and, intriguingly, featuring an appearance by stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill, whose breathtaking YouTube video The Ridge uses Bennett’s music.

Back in the Concert Hall, other eclectically diverse headliners include the virtuoso fiddle-harp duo Chris Stout and Catriona McKay with the Scottish Ensemble, King Creosote and other guests including Brazilian singer Marcelo Preto and hugely popular songsmith Dougie MacLean, while the mighty Fiddler’s Bid share a bill with Finnish fiddle heroes Frigg. Also at the Concert Hall is electro-acoustic composer and pianist Max Richter with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Malian diva Oumou Sangaré, while those perennial dust-raisers, Blazin’ Fiddles, will celebrate an anniversary of their own – their 20th – with US fiddler-songwriter Laura Cortese.

There’s a busy programme, too, at the Old Fruitmarket, ranging from the super-trio of Drever McCusker Woomble and Celtic Connections regular Brian Kennedy to a Bardic celebration on 25 January from the 12-strong Band of Burns, a cross-genre Northern Celtic Routes gathering curated by Swedish multi-instrumentalist Ale Möller, and a Dick Gaughan Benefit Concert featuring a stellar line-up paying tribute to Scottish folk’s most powerful conscience-jolter, currently battling ill health.

As ever, the festival presents a powerful bill of Americana, with, quite apart from the hugely popular, two-night Transatlantic Sessions, the Grammy-winning singer and guitarist Shawn Colvin, Colorado bluegrass outfit The Railsplitters (joined by Aberdeenshire balladeer Iona Fyfe, launching her debut album) and the potent vocal trio I’m With Her, featuring Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan.

Gaelic strands include the showcase Òrain nan Gàidheal / Songs of the Gael in the Concert Hall New Auditorium, featuring Julie Fowlis, Kathleen MacInnes, Karen Matheson, Griogair Labhruidh and many others; Fowlis is joined at the City Halls by Irish sean-nós star Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh while, at the CCA, Gaels Le Chèile @ Ceòl’s Craic presents young Scots and Irish Gaelic performers.

Other notable Irish visitors include KGB, not the secret police but that immeasurably more inspiring trio of piper Paddy Keenan with fiddler Frankie Gavin and accordionist Dermot Byrne, and Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll with Trevor Hutchinson and Séan Óg Graham and Niamh Dunne, while two enticing Scots-Irish bills at the Strathclyde Suite are the Cathal McConnell Trio, the veteran singer, flautist and tradition-bearer joined by rising Scots singer Hannah Rarity and acclaimed young singer and bouzouki player Daoiri Farrell with Scots Border singer and fiddler Lori Watson.

In another genre altogether, those peerless jazz sparring partners Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock are at the Concert Hall’s New Auditorium, supported by award-winning young pianist Fergus McCreadie, while several tribute concerts include Arrest this Moment, celebrating the much missed Dundee surrealist Michael Marra, with his biographer James Robertson joined by Alice and Chris Marra, Karine Polwart, Rab Noakes and dancer Frank McConnell.

These are just a few of those 300 events in this 25th year of what has become the largest winter music festival anywhere, ranging from concert hall extravaganzas to gems of performance in intimate venues. Take a deep breath and delve into the programme for yourself.

Celtic Connections, 18 January to 4 February, celticconnections.com