Although this was essentially Laura Marling’s night, this year’s Celtic Connections Opening Concert turned out to be as generously populated an evening as previous massed celebrations, with a first half of special guests which felt like a concert in itself.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall ****
Festival favourite Karine Polwart cut straight to the chase with a specially composed meditation on the occasion of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, sung from the perspective of the Lewis landscape from where his mother hailed, and followed up with a haunting requiem for Susan Maxwell, backed with the nobility and grace of Pippa Murphy’s arrangements for the SSO, conducted by Jules Buckley.
There were appetite-whetting previews of a couple of international guests – Saharan singer Aziza Brahim’s hypnotic desert rock and the perky pop bluegrass of Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys, a warm yet sombre turn by Rachel Sermanni and Adam Holmes and an overly ornamental rendition of She Moved Through The Fair from Cara Dillon.
Declan O’Rourke threatened to run away with the whole evening through a combination of charm, wit, captivating songs and some handy orchestral arrangements in his back pocket from his recent collaboration with the RTE Concert Orchestra which took the romantic swell of Galileo up into the stratosphere and gave Slieve Bloom a dynamic, dissonant power charge.
It was a bumper first half, almost too much of a distraction from the main event, but it soon became apparent why there was so much added value when Laura Marling left us wanting more with her frustratingly short, if sweet, headlining set.
Marling emerged from the same London indie folk scene as Mumford & Sons but is in a different artistic league to her festival-headlining peers, more than capable of holding a room on her own with her quiet authority and charisma, not to mention her spellbinding, elastic voice, enfolded here in Kate St John’s ravishing orchestral arrangements, which complemented the sultry subtlety of Sophia and enhanced, even rather transformed Hope in the Air with the lip-smacking taste pairing of jazzy mute trumpet and glockenspiel.
Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), her gorgeous paean to the Hampshire landscape, echoed down from her early career but Marling has long since succumbed to transatlantic drift, and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche fitted her like a glove.