Celtic Connections 2023: Jim Gilchrist picks his highlights from this year's programme

Struggling to decide what to see at this year's Celtic Connections festival? Here are some highlights secleted by Scotsman folk critic Jim Gilchrist

Glasgow once again brings in the new year with the eruption of its gleefully genre-defying winter festival of roots-based music, Celtic Connections. Running from 19 January to 5 February, this year’s jubilant celebration of the event’s 30th anniversary sees some 300 events across 30 stages, all of which makes deciding what to attend quite a challenge. Here are just a few personal choices, ranging from concert hall spectaculars to rewarding events in more intimate venues.

The opening night’s 30th Anniversary Concert in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (GRCH) showcases a gallimaufry of artists who have appeared over the years along with more recently emerging talent, including Karine Polwart, Rachel Sermanni, Greg Lawson, Patsy Reid , Michael McGoldrick, Ross Ainslie, Fergus McCreadie and many others, including the return of the festival’s formidable big band.

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Other promising Concert Hall events include the country-blues-rock of triple Grammy-winning Lucinda Williams with Nashville quartet L.A. Edwards (23 Jan), while further classy Americana comes from another Grammy-winner, Aoife O’Donovan, with her acclaimed cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album at the CCA (31 Jan). Also, the hugely popular two-night Transatlantic Sessions return to the Concert Hall with guests including Martha Wainwright and Amythyst Kiah, hosted as ever by Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas (3 and 5 Feb).

Aoife O'Donovan PIC: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Also at GRCH, the superb Irish singer, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh joins the Irish Chamber Orchestra on the 25th for Róisín Reimagined, featuring newly commissioned arrangements of classic sean nós songs. The following night in the Concert Hall, Scotland’s links with Brittany and elsewhere are showcased in Celtic Odyssée, led by Breton piper Ronan Le Bars and his band, along with guests from other Celtic realms, including Scotland’s Karen Matheson, Ireland’s Karan Casey and others from Wales, Isle of Man, Cornwall and Galicia.

Renowned fiddle and harp duo Chris Stout and Catriona McKay join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the City Halls (27 Jan) for Möder Dy (Shetlandic for “Mother Wave”) with guests including former Hothouse Flowers singer Liam Ó Maonlaí and Shetland poet Christie Williamson. Across the Clyde at the Tramway, meanwhile, traditional music reconnects with its dance roots in Moving Cloud (27 and 28 Jan), as pan-Celtic band TRIP, Gaelic vocal trio Sian, violinist Greg Lawson and cellist Allice Allen team up with Scottish Dance Theatre.

A vigorous world music strand ranges from the Orchestral Qawwali Project at the City Halls (21 Jan) with their beguiling blend of Sufi poetry and orchestral arrangements, to Mali’s Rokia Koné – “the Rose of Bamako” – who graces the Old Fruitmarket with the first UK live performance of her acclaimed debut album, Bamanan (4 Feb).

Top-class jazz animates a smaller venue on 3 February when saxophonist Paul Towndrow and his trio of Pete Johnstone on organ and Alyn Cosker on drums launch their new album Outwith the Circle at the Drygate Brewery, sharing the bill with Breabach bassist James Lindsay’s Torus project.

Rachel Sermanni PIC: Gaelle Bari / Celtic Connections

Further jazz, too, in that gem of a venue, the Mackintosh Church, on 20 January, when multi-award-winning pianist Fergus McCreadie joins Mr McFall’s String Quartet, along with US-based Scots harpist Maeve Gilchrist. At the same venue, Schenectady Calling (22 Jan) sees jazz guitar hero Martin Taylor join pianist Dave Milligan and Shetland musicians Bryan Gear, Norman Willmore and Violet Tulloch to celebrate the legacy of the inimitable Shetland swing guitarist "Peerie" Willie Johnson.

For piping buffs, Celtic Connections’ Annual Pipe Band event (4 Feb) at GRCH is a must, celebrating Pipe Major Ian Duncan’s contribution to piping through his leadership of the innovative Vale of Atholl Pipe Band. The show re-imagines the band’s seminal Names and Places album, featuring pipers from the original recording plus Tryst and other guests.

Finally, don’t forget Sunday afternoons in the GRCH Strathclyde Suite, where the festival’s New Voices strand premieres often memorable compositions from emerging musicians. This year’s commissions feature singer-songwriter Beth Malcolm (22 Jan), piper Malin Lewis (29 January) and Orcadian fiddler Eric Linklater (5 Feb).

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To see the full Celtic Connections programme, visit www.celticconnections.com

Martha Wainwright. PIC: Gaëlle Leroyer
Fergus McCreadie