Celtic Connections chief opens up on event’s future

Celtic Connections artistic director Donald Shaw. Picture: John Devlin
Celtic Connections artistic director Donald Shaw. Picture: John Devlin
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One word sums up Donald Shaw’s recollection of what he can remember thinking when he first heard of Glasgow’s plans to launch a traditional music festival in the middle of January: trepidation.

Like many of his fellow musicians in the early 1990s Scottish folk scene, he was far from convinced about the wisdom of launching a new event at the city’s new flagship concert arena.

Created to help fill the 2,400-capacity Royal Concert Hall at the top of Buchanan Street at the quietest time of the year in its schedules, the event’s line-up featured some of the biggest names of the day, including Wolfstone, Boys of the Lough, the Battlefield Band, Dougie MacLean and Dick Gaughan.

But Shaw, who describes the initial event as “a big risk,” was one of those who seriously doubted whether it could draw in big enough crowds.

A quarter of a century on, Shaw is at the helm of the event for the 12th time, in charge of a vast operation that runs to more than 300 shows, takes over a couple of dozen venues for close to three weeks and generates over £1.5 million at the box office.

That first festival would confound the critics and surpass the expectations of 
its first performers by attracting more than 35,000 people through the doors of the venue.

Shaw was performing in one of Scotland’s most successful folk bands, Capercaillie, when Celtic Connections was launched. But he remembers concern about whether the untried concept would turn into a financial disaster for the new venue.

“I remember thinking that the folk scene was in a really great place at the time and there were a lot of interesting things happening,” he says.

“But there was also a feeling of trepidation that because Celtic Connections was such a big, bold statement if it didn’t work it would send out the wrong signal.

“The scene in Scotland was quite underground at the time. There was a sense of pride that it was being given a stage to prove itself at a great level, but there was also fear that it wasn’t going to work.

“It was all a bit of a mystery. The people organising it at the concert hall weren’t known to anyone.

“It was a bit like: ‘Do they know what they are doing and are they sure about this?

“I think they just thought: ‘The venue’s not doing much in January. What can we do to instigate an unusual programme?’”

Right from the outset, Celtic Connections set out to target some of the biggest names in the business, with a host of stars from the then much better known Irish scene gracing the first festival, including Altan, The Chieftains, Sharon Shannon and De Dannan, along with Canadian guests Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

“There was just a real sense of momentum about it. I remember going to a concert on the second night, ended up having a beer and a session with some musicians and ended up going up every night. Socially, it was just great.

“There was a feeling from musicians at the time that it had been worth doing and was a real statement.”

Such was the momentum that was being built up behind the event that it had spilled out of the Royal Concert Hall by its second year and by 1997, when international stars like Steve Earle, Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris were in the line-up, it involved more than 170 events across 11 stages.

“A defining moment for me was watching a band who have been described as ‘the best band in the world’ – La Bottine Souriante from Quebec – when they were supporting Capercaillie, says Shaw.

“The atmosphere was really extraordinary and it felt like you were witnessing the Quebecois tradition in Glasgow. It felt like such an exciting prospect to bring a band from somewhere and create the atmosphere of their heritage.

“They were a 15-piece band no-one in Glasgow had ever seen or heard before, but they brought the house down, were booked to come back every other year and became a household name at the festival.

“I think there are very few other festivals in the world that have built a model based on bringing in an unknown act, creating a popular reaction and bringing them back in over and over again.

“There was a real sense of the Celtic Connections audience being ‘in the know’. It has a real sense of commitment from its audience.

“I’ve been asked if there is anything negative about Celtic Connections. I don’t really think there is but if you try to promote folk music in Glasgow in the summer it is very hard to get people to come out.”

As it notches up the quarter century there is little sign of Celtic Connections’ popularity waning. If anything, the opposite is the case. No fewer than 16 sell-outs were recorded in one-night last year, while the festival can now boast a 10,000-strong audience across the breadth of its venues.

Some of the biggest ticket scrambles are for new bands with some of the youngest followings, including Hebridean favourites like Manran, SkipInnish, Skerryvore and Tide Lines, with some fans travelling long distances to see them fill venues like the Barrowland Ballroom, the Pavilion Theatre, the O2 ABC and St Luke’s.

The festival has also developed another trend – for sparking a mass exodus of music fans from different parts of the country when local favourites land a prestigious Celtic Connections booking.

Shaw says: “There is a fantastic geographic thing that goes on at the festival. With a band like Fiddlers’ Bid, several hundred people will come down from Shetland to see them, or a large Highland contingent will travel to see Blazin’ Fiddles. The same thing happens with Saltfishforty and the Orcadians.

“Around 95 per cent of our audience used to come from in and around Glasgow. Now it’s around 70 per cent, with 15 per cent from the rest of Scotland and 15 per cent from the rest of the world. It is a very audience-led festival and I still see it as being very much a festival for the people.”

For many musicians and Celtic Connections’ most loyal followers, the real magic has been found after the main concerts have wrapped up.

Initially, the “Festival Club” was established in the Hospitality Inn, then the Central Hotel. After a somewhat nomadic existence, these days it is split into three with Glasgow School of Art and the Drygate Brewery hosting programmed line-ups until the early hours of the morning, while the Holiday Inn opposite the concert hall hosts spontaneous sessions throughout the festival.

Shaw says: “The backbone audience of the festival go to the festival clubs all the time and get to witness really spontaneous, unique performances. They feel a sense of privilege to get that close to the musicians.

“The festival clubs have been pretty pivotal, particularly at the Central Hotel, when a lot of the time there were no pre-organised acts, as it created almost forced collaborations, if a band needed a musician, and also pretty spontaneous musical conversations, which became embryonic ideas for new acts. But more importantly, they also served as a way to break down misconceptions about different musical styles. A lot of barriers were broken down.

Shaw’s tenure has brought a host of big-name, if somewhat unlikely, acts to Glasgow in January, including Sir Tom Jones, Robert Plant, Olivia Newton John and Jarvis Cocker. He believes he has also seen off the annual questioning of the festival’s “Celtic” credentials after a dozen years at the helm.

“The only thing we make a point of steering away from is mainstream pop music,” he says. “I’ve been offered some pretty big names over the years and have turned them down. James Blunt and Robbie Williams are two examples.

“There are always the iconic American greats like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, where you’re always digging away to see if there is any movement, but they tend to have their own agenda or are just not interested in performing and Celtic Connections isn’t going to make a difference.

“I’m less inclined to be excited by the names as much now. I’m more excited by the potential of a project which brings musicians together, and creates something new.

“Celtic Connections, particularly for Scottish folk musicians, is a vehicle for their aspirations. We can take their dreams of what they want to do musically and try to make them come alive.”

Celtic Connections starts tonight and runs until 4 February, www.celticconnections.com