Celtic Connections triumphantly celebrated its 25th anniversary on Thursday night with an opening concert which crammed in as many acts as it could without actually locking us in the concert hall until the following day. It opened in stirring form with a solo piper from the Tryst pipe band sounding a lament on a darkened stage before giving way to the syncopated snarl of a drum salute, and closed (bar the obligatory encore jamboree) with those same pipers and drummers joining Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton in a resounding set.
Celtic Connections 25th Anniversary Concert, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall ***
In between came a bewildering succession of performers, many of whom had played Connections numerous times, not least pianist Dave Milligan, the show’s director, and drummer James Mackintosh, both of whom played in the first festival and here at the heart of a sturdy house band. The crammed programme meant that groups such as the Shetland-Scandinavian-Irish-American fiddle collective of the String Sisters never really got the chance to get into their limber stride. Similarly Sharon Shannon, Michael McGoldrick and John McCusker, kicking up a jolly rumpus over ebullient blasts from a brass trio, sounded as if they could have gone many laps more, while other esteemed veterans, Cherish the Ladies, played a frustratingly short set, although some high-kicking from their dancer, David Geaney, raised the roof.
In between the de rigeur jigs and reels were some diverse interludes: a solitary, fine ballad, The Unquiet Grave, from Siobhan Miller, accompanied by Kris Drever, the latter also contributing a beaty offering from the folk-indie-rock trio of Drever McCusker Woomble. From a surprisingly under-represented Gaeldom came delicately harmonised waulking songs from the young group Sian.
Festival staple Eddi Reader delivered Pangur the Cat, inspired by ancient Celtic iconography but here romping cheerfully with the ever-expanding house band, while the Indian violin and tabla duo Sharat Chandra Srivastava and Gyan Singh, no strangers to playing with Scottish musicians, were confined to the plangent cadences of an atypically short evening raga.Two strikingly different reactions to war were Syrian Maya Youssef, plucking glittering cascades from her qanun, an Arabic zither, in a piece lamenting her shattered country, while Ian McCalman led the Far, Far from Ypres choir in a First World War medley of songs and poetry to mark this year’s centenary of the end of the conflict – moments of solemn reflection in an otherwise understandably up-beat evening.