Celtic Connections review: Transatlantic Sessions, Glasgow

The Transatlantic Sessions (****) have been a fixture of Celtic Connections' programme for so long, and features so many regulars in the all-star 'house band' who accompany the guest singers, that it's easy to forget the logistical and creative feats involved in putting the shows together '“ and the lack of rehearsal time.
The impressive Kate Young was one of this years New VoicesThe impressive Kate Young was one of this years New Voices
The impressive Kate Young was one of this years New Voices

Hence the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone employed by Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, the project’s co-musical director with US dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, when he described Friday’s first performance, in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, as “the one with the raw energy” – or as Douglas put it, “the one where we’re all scared witless”. But while a few remaining wrinkles and rough edges were discernible on opening night, it’s exactly this seat-of-the-pants, out-of-the-comfort-zone, adrenaline-charged element that often makes these shows so special, and there were plenty such moments to outweigh the glitches here.

For many in the audience, it was clear, the incandescent brilliance of Stateside singer Rhiannon Giddens – formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, now emerging as an extraordinary solo talent – would almost have been worth the ticket price alone.

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Giddens’s personal exploration of Southern US history, musical and otherwise, from an African-American perspective, made her an inspired – and inspiring – Transatlantic Sessions choice, encompassing as it does that history’s Scottish and Irish dimensions, highlighted by her electrifying revamp of Black is the Colour, adapted to a swaggering up-tempo groove, which had the band sounding like some massive funk/blues combo.

The lusciously velvety and honeyed tones of Karen Matheson and Cara Dillon offered luminously contrasting versions of female vocal beauty – the latter most of all in a limpidly poised, ardently sorrowful acappella rendering of The Winding River Roe – while Appalachian veteran Joe Newberry allied his trenchant, raw-boned holler with lickety-split banjo picking. Instrumentally, the now seasoned interplay between Douglas’s ringingly authoritative dobro work and the Celtic players on fiddles, accordion, flute, whistles and uilleann pipes made its own eloquent statement of musical connection.

The sly humour with which the show’s other US guests, LA duo The Milk Carton Kids (*****), introduced their wistful cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here – claiming thereby to have delved into “the older traditions of English music” – gave only a hint of the wholesale hilarity that reigned for much of their own show the next night at the Mitchell Theatre.

If they didn’t make such blissfully lovely music, singer/guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan could certainly forge an alternative career as a comedy-double act, digressing here with immaculately-timed waspishness and arid understatement for up to ten minutes at a time – and then repeatedly raising goosebumps with their fragile, yearning harmonies, sung into a single microphone. It was a sound very much in the timeless, gilded tradition of the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel, but with finely-wrought original songs firmly imprinting the pair’s own distinctive stamp.

At lunchtime the following day, in the Strathclyde Suite, the last of this year’s New Voices series, comprising three première concerts of specially-commissioned music, saw singer and fiddler Kate Young (****), aka Kate in the Kettle, drawing on both her diverse musical background and a long-time fascination with the traditional lore of plants, especially their medicinal properties, for her boldly adventurous song sequence Umbelliferae.

Performing with an eight-piece line-up – mostly strings, plus clarsach and drums – Young interwove her own lyrics with fragments of incantation and prayer from the Carmina Gadelica, plus archive spoken-word recordings, into a wayward soundscape, whose eldritch tonalities, eerie harmonies and restive rhythmic layers skilfully skirted the familiar and orthodox.

Her expertise in traditional Bulgarian singing lent further compelling exoticism to the mix, which potently evoked the half-lost, half-­hidden healing knowledge she sought to revive and celebrate.