Celtic Connections review: Coastal Connections, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Celtic Connections’ Coastal Connections afternoon, a mini-festival kicking off Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, was an ambitious and often rewarding if sometimes frustrating affair, as crowds milled between Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s various spaces. With two dozen performances on offer it was impossible to take everything in and the temptation was to shift from venue to venue, sampling or staying.


Coastal Connections, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall **** 

A reviewer’s nightmare, perhaps, but there was much to appreciate, with the main auditorium drawing crowds with such big beasts as Capercaillie and Skerryvore (the Tiree-based band exuberantly celebrating their 15th birthday), but also among often engrossing smaller performances elsewhere. One of these was harpist Ingrid Henderson’s beguiling multimedia show Message in a Bottle, a Scottish Natural Heritage commission, with Henderson joined by sister Megan on fiddle and vocals, uilleann piper Conal McDonagh and guitarist Anna Massie, their delicately spinning music augmented by Cat Bruce’s magical animation evoking a rich environment worryingly at risk.

The main auditorium programme opened, meanwhile, with Orcadians Fara combining sprightly fiddle sets with song settings of Orcadian poetry, followed by Julie Fowlis’s pan-Gaelic Allt collaboration with Ireland’s Zoe Conway, John McIntyre and Éamon Doorley, including Fowlis’s singing of the poignant Sister, Oh Sister, about siblings sundered by water.

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High-flying pipes and fiddle and the singing of Ellen MacDonald characterised Daimh, a powerful band who claim to have played on 32 of Scotland’s islands so far, while Capercaillie, now approaching veteran status, wowed the crowds with their drum and percussion weighted instrumental sets, although it was their singer, Karen Matheson, who reminded us what a superb voice she has with An Ataireachd Àrd – “the eternal surge”, an emblematic song of Gaeldom that, inevitably, recurred more than once during the afternoon.

In the Exhibition Hall, harpist Esther Swift’s composition for concert harp and string quartet, The Flood, inspired by an overspilling Tweed  in her hometown of Peebles, was suitably sinuous and dark-toned, strings sliding and heightening tension, Swift at times singing over them, invoking the all-too-contemporary reality of families forced to cross open water.

And of course, there was the arrival of the “sea goddess”, Storm, an imposing, ten-metre high figure fashioned from recycled materials, who had made her way – courtesy of the eight puppeteers of Vision Mechanics – from Clydeside to the Concert Hall, frowning down on supplicant, phone brandishing crowds. I viewed her later, having missed her arrival, engrossed as I was in the mellifluous singing of Josie Duncan, over the gamelan-like percussion of Signy Jakobsdottir, in a preview of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Ferry Tales to be performed aboard CalMac’s finest during the year.

The real storms, however, manifested themselves in Launch!, in which singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon and beatboxer Jason Singh, with John Ellis and Arun Gosht, accompanied footage compiled by Shona Thomson from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution archives.

Gosht’s clarinet howl whipped up the drama of the call-out and Singh’s percussive vocalising complimented the heaving waves and stricken vessels on screen to evoke the sea as a fearsomely hissing, growling entity. Jim Gilchrist