Music review: Celtic Connections 30th Anniversary Concert, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The opening concert of this year’s 30th Celtic Connections festival was an ambitious, all-star affair, yet everyone found their place on a stage big enough to encompass the world, writes Fiona Shepherd

Celtic Connections 30th Anniversary Concert, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall ****

The Celtic Connections opening concert is always a big deal and never more so than in its 30th edition. After two years of online and socially distanced events, the capacity crowd would likely have whooped it up to a piper, a fiddler and a passing bodhran player but this is not a festival to stint on an occasion which called for the re-mustering of the Celtic Connections Big Band, starring a host of outrageously talented musicians who have embodied the spirit of the festival for many years – and, in the case of drummer James Mackintosh, every year.

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There were funny and fond festival reminiscences from MC Anna Massie and the stalwart Karine Polwart, but mostly the music did the talking in a diverse bill which honoured the festival’s long-established ethos of openness as well as functioning as a shop window for the 17 days of concerts to come – from Sierra Hull’s lightning dexterity on mandolin to Peat and Diesel’s folk punk tub-thumping to Maeve Gilchrist’s commanding solo harp. Mali’s Trio Da Cali were still potent as a duo, following the regrettable refusal of one visa, Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam O’Maonlai delivered a rhythmic and soulful Celtic incantation and Rachel Sermanni reprised her lockdown lullaby Lay My Heart.

Rachel Sermanni at the Celtic Connections Opening Concert PIC: Sean Purser

Inevitably, the bigger set pieces packed the most dramatic punch. The 22-piece National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland (“Top Gun for pipers” according to Massie) threatened to steal the show only to be upstaged by Scottish Dance Theatre’s elastic, ecstatic display.

The Big Band expanded and contracted as required throughout the three-hour extravaganza, delivering intoxicating Balkan and Arabic-inspired arrangements and finishing at full 35-piece strength with hands-on artistic director Donald Shaw rightly at the thick of it, before all the guest singers and instrumentalists returned for a massed encore, with everyone finding their place on a stage big enough to encompass the world.

Scottish Dance Theatre perform at the Celtic Connections Opening Concert PIC: Sean Purser
Celtic Connections 30th Anniversary Concert PIC: Brian Ferguson / The Scotsman