The theme of this year’s Celtic Connections was the inspiring women of song, and two contrasting standard bearers graced the final weekend of the festival. Canada’s Martha Wainwright, of the ridiculously talented Wainwright/McGarrigle clan, represents the more elastic side of the festival, where traditions are stretched, blended and moulded into something new and, wherever Wainwright is involved, seductive.
Martha Wainwright/Ed Harcourt ****
Shirley Collins ****
City Halls, Glasgow
Her voice was gloriously unfettered, a cri de coeur in places, but also soft, or conversational, and often set against complementary subtle, soothing arrangements.
Her family loomed large in spirit, with songs written about them and by them, the most exquisite of which was a paean for her youngest boy Frances written by his uncle Rufus with all the innate romance, melodrama and affection of an old Rodgers & Hart number.
There were entertaining revelations about her aunt Anna McGarrigle’s secret synthesizer past and a touching rendition of Proserpina, the last song written by her mother Kate.
She celebrated her wider musical family with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel which made up in personality what she lacked in lyrical recall and there was a seat-of-the-pants collaboration with her support act Ed Harcourt whose inventive solo set looped his drumming, guitar and piano playing across a diverse set of raw, garagey numbers, angst-ridden torch songs and a Beck-like psych funk shuffle.
It was a rare pleasure to hear Shirley Collins sing at all. Having lost her voice to dysphonia almost 40 years ago, the veteran folklorist has found her way back to recording and performing. This Celtic Connections debut – her first performance in the city for decades – was a relaxed but structured presentation of her new album, Lodestar, performed chronologically with eerie little films, archive visuals and occasional Morris dancing interludes from Glen Redman.
Her longtime friend and associate Pip Barnes officiated, providing context and narration, but Collins was the sage focus in the centre of the pow-wow. Her voice has inevitably deepened with age, and now resonates with a touch of quavering frailty, but also a warmth which made the experience more intimate, as if we were all sitting rapt at her feet, cosy in her company even as the body count in these old English and Appalachian songs stacked up.
There was spare but atmospheric backing from her band, led by Ian Kearey, who supplied hypnotically picked guitar, a scraping of fiddle, a shimmer of cymbal and hurdy-gurdy drone to taste on the Cajun song Sur le Borde de l’Eau, sung by Collins “in her best Sussex French”.
This was an evening of appreciation on all sides, with Collins’s influential place in the tradition apparent from the all-ages audience, which included a generous helping of the city’s indie musicians, and her guests Sam Lee, Jayme Stone and Alastair Roberts, dubbed “Shirley’s toy boys”, who supplied harmony on the moving chorus song Thousands Or More.
The crowd were so enamoured by proceedings that they didn’t budge even when prompted with some specially prepared “walking out music”.