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Celtic Connections 2009 by Mike Wilson

Celtic Connections is Scotland's premier winter music festival featuring artists from around the globe.It takes place in Glasgow every January, and now returns for a 16th year Article published by Mike Wilson on Green Man Review
All rights reserved by the author and posted under his kind permission.
Glasgow, UK (January 2009)
Friday 23rd January
Upon arrival at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall, I was delighted to see an exhibition of photography by the Belgian photographer,
Lieve Boussouaw. Many will be familiar with the presence of Lieve and her camera at gigs and festivals all over Europe, and will likely be just as familiar with the stunning photographs that she takes. Lieve is a true artist, and it was a genuine pleasure to see her photographs printed on to large canvas, hanging on the walls of the concert hall, to be appreciated as works of art in their own right. The photographs were taken over the course of Lieve's visits to Celtic Connections in 2007 and 2008, and hold within their images, stories of music, fun and friendship. The rich, matt black that featured heavily throughout the photographs, gave a real depth that made you feel as if you could walk right in to the picture and live the experience that it contained. Lieve's photography has always captured much more than mere images, cannily homing in on the experience, or the feeling of being there -- perfectly preserving the essence of an event, be it a seasoned performer on a large stage, or the reveries of an intimate late-night session.
Celtic Connections was to provide me with my first gig of 2009, and I'm happy to say that I wasn't to be disappointed. Tonight I was bound for Glasgow's Tron Theatre to see Debra Salem, followed by the night's main act, Kathleen Boyle, accordion player with Dòchas and Cherish The Ladies, who has recently released her first solo album, An Cailín Rua.
Debra Salem is a singer in the truest sense of the word, whose approach to singing is very much an art form in itself. She doesn't just carelessly trot out a melody, but really gets inside the song and inhabits every little corner of the story, fleshing out the characters of a song and the emotions contained therein. Salem's vocal style leans heavily towards the jazz genre, improvising freely and flowing beautifully alongside her musical accompaniment. Tonight's musical accompaniment came in the form of Phil Alexander on accordion and Kenny Irons on bass. That there was so little on stage, meant that each musician had to work extra hard to create a range of rhythms and textures, and all three rose to the challenge with great aplomb. Whilst Salem's vocal delivery is very much jazz-oriented, she chooses from a broad range of material, instilling it with her jazz-hued sensibilities. One of the stand-out tracks for me was a wonderfully bouncy reading of the traditional folk ballad, "She's Like A Swallow," and the thought of Salem exploring this jazz/trad-folk fusion further is a mouthwatering proposition indeed. Salem's own trio of love-related compositions were also enjoyable, none more so than her closing number, "There's The Door," a feisty rebuke to a deceitful former lover. Salem's stories of real-life love sat well alongside a cover of Kate & Anna McGarrigle's "Go Leave," and ultimately I felt that it was Salem's tacit link with the delicate details of every-day life that ensured she would immediately connect with tonight's audience and quickly win their affections.
The main act tonight was
Kathleen Boyle, who received a rapturous welcome upon taking to the stage, for her home town gig. Boyle was accompanied by some of Scotland's most formidable young traditional musicians, ensuring that this colourful set was destined for a heady climax. Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid, Ewan Robertson on guitar, and Martin O'Neill on bodhrán formed the core of the band, with a few very special guests to further augment the music. Boyle's family links with County Donegal in Ireland provided for an enjoyable musical melting pot that took in the traditional music of both Scotland and Ireland. Robertson and O'Neill ensured that there was a strong and rhythmic heartbeat, whilst the fluid interplay between Reid's fiddle and Boyle's accordion provided the set's most exhilarating moments. Former lead singer of Cherish The Ladies, Heidi Talbot, made an appearance to sing a typically lilting "The Banks of Red Roses," and was also joined later by the current lead singer of Cherish The Ladies, Michelle Burke, on a pretty duet of "Fair And Tender Ladies." Without a doubt, the star guest of the evening was Kathleen's father, Hughie Boyle, who all but stole the show with his mischievous sense of humour and stories. However, it was Hughie's musical contribution that impressed most -- it was touching to see father and daughter side by side on stage, sharing tunes, probably just as they have for many years at home, but tonight receiving an ecstatic response from an appreciative audience. What an enthralling start to my gig calendar for 2009 -- I left the Tron Theatre with a definite feeling of euphoria!
Highlights from Friday night's festival club stage were the enigmatic
Casey Driessen, playing fiddle like his life depended on it, with a charisma and ferocity that leaves you totally in awe. Fribo delivered a vibrant set of their Nordic flavoured music, with Sarah-Jane Summers' lively fiddle perfectly balanced by the crisp, haunting vocals of Anne Sofie Linge Valdal. The big surprise of the night for me, was when Norrie Maciver took to the stage with Ruari Sutherland, to combine Norrie's Gaelic song with Ruari's beatbox sounds, to stunning effect. I'll stick my neck out here -- I think Norrie Maciver is the best young, male Gaelic singer on the scene, and could easily appeal to a wider audience, particularly if he continues to show the same inventiveness as he did tonight. The rhythmic puirt-a-beul blended seamlessly with the beatboxing, to produce an exciting and contagious concoction that quickly brought the crowd to their feet!
Saturday 24th January
It was around Saturday lunchtime that I headed back to the Royal Concert Hall to sit in on one of
Chrissie Stewart's workshops, Singin' On Yer Mammy's Knee, a workshop run for those who have or look after children, and dedicated to the singing of traditional Scottish children's songs. I had previously interviewed Chrissie about her work with children's songs, so I had a fair idea what she was about, and it was great fun to finally see her in action! Chrissie's knack for keeping the children engaged involves lots of action songs, and it was heart warming to see the children's little faces light up as they joined in with the actions or just bounced around! It's also nice to see somebody involving children with traditional material from such an early age, and more importantly promoting activities that parents and children can enjoy together. I even had a little sing along myself to such cheery fair as "The Big Ship Sails," "Three Craws," or "The Herrins' Heids," remembering the words from Chrissie's album, Bairns Kist, that has helped me out a few times when I've been home alone with my baby daughter!
Saturday evening saw a return to entertainment of a more mature nature, starting out in the sumptuous surrounds of the City Halls venue. Song writer
Dean Owens is a real class act. He took to the stage tonight with Kim Edgar on piano and Stuart Nisbet on guitar, all dressed in suits, looking every bit as sassy as Owens' songs sounded. Given that his most recent album, Whisky Hearts, was recorded in Nashville, it came as no surprise that Owen's songs carried a hint of country -- think Ryan Adams, but much smoother. Country leanings aside, Owens' introspective musings often recalled those of The Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan, with Owens' song "Raining In Glasgow" feeling particularly reminiscent of Buchanan's "Tinseltown In The Rain," though both written from different perspectives. The trio gave a great understated sound to material that really needed nothing more, as Owens' lyrics were more than enough to engage the mind and sooth the soul.
I have been listening to
Kathy Mattea for quite a few years now, ever since I fell head-over-heels in love with her voice on the original television series of Transatlantic Sessions, back in 1994. Having had a prolific award-winning career in music in the 1980s and 1990s, Mattea has been relatively quiet of late. Last year saw her release a fairly low-profile project, Coal, being a very personal homage to the coal mining industries that have surrounded various aspects of Mattea's life as she grew up in West Virginia. An abundance of critical acclaim was deservedly heaped upon Coal, and Mattea once again finds herself nominated for a Grammy award, and firmly back on the music radar. So, here I was sat in my seat waiting for Mattea to appear, with a feeling of anticipation, bordering on unease -- would she live up to all my hopes tonight?
From the opening lines of "Dark As A Dungeon" any unease was immediately banished. Mattea's voice was as rich and resonant as I had ever heard, and to witness her delivering these heartfelt lyrics against minimal accompaniment sent a very real shiver down my spine and had my eyes welling with tears. Mattea is the real deal. She always has been. Always has been much better than the big-haired country singer that the marketing folks would have us believe in the past. With Coal, Mattea has a brought together a set of material that is truly worthy of the genuine heart and soul that she packs in to her intense vocal performance.
Backed by a stripped-down three-piece acoustic band that included David Spicher on double bass, Bill Cooley on guitar, and Eamonn O'Rourke on mandolin and fiddle, Mattea was really able to lift her voice to the forefront of the mix, and it was an absolute joy to be able to hear her voice so clearly. The band were a formidable trio, bringing sturdy, old-timey, bluegrass melodies that provided both a sublime backdrop and also some ferociously exciting picking. In fact nobody seemed to be enjoying the band as much as Mattea herself, who seemed genuinely excited to be sharing the stage with them. In fact, Mattea seemed genuinely excited to be playing in Glasgow as part of the Celtic Connections festival, and had managed to catch a few gigs herself.
The audience were treated to a substantial selection of songs from Coal, along with some well-worn favourites. Songs such as Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" offered a panoramic view of life within a mining community, whilst Hazel Dickens' "Black Lung" gave a much more personal perspective, being a moving tribute to the brother she lost to the mining-related disease from which the song gets its title. Past hits "Love At The Five And Dime," "Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses" and the desolate "Where've You Been" proved popular with the audience, and sounded all the better for the band's acoustic treatment.
Tonight, Kathy Mattea certainly reaffirmed her presence in my affections, and also her status as one of my heroes of song!
Next tonight, it was down a few flights of stairs and along the corridor to the cavernous Old Fruitmarket venue, to catch the vibrant and versatile
Salsa Celtica, a band whose fusion of traditional folk and salsa music is a firm festival favourite. Their concoction of Latin rhythms with traditional folk instruments is a heady brew: an array of exotic percussion lines up alongside a spirited brass section, with fiddle, banjo and bagpipes. I've seen Salsa Celtica before, and their skill for whipping an audience into a carnival-like dancing frenzy is a joyous sight, and tonight's audience didn't fail to disappoint in this regard. However, tonight's gig was particularly special as the band were being joined on stage by Gaelic singers Julie Fowlis and Kathleen MacInnes, who entwined the rhythms of their Gaelic songs beautifully with the funky fusion of Salsa Celtica. It was great to see Julie and Kathleen enjoying the experience so much, liberated from the comparative sobriety of their regular material. The gig ended in exuberant style with the band, still playing, leading the audience out of the venue and into the street, where they continued playing to an ecstatic response from their adoring audience!
At tonight's festival club I spent a good bit of time in Doris Rougvie's House of Song -- a quiet room set aside for people to gather and share a few songs. At least that's the idea anyway, though it's a pity that not all occupants of the room respected the singers and listeners, and allowed them to have some peace in this relatively small oasis of calm. Even the bar staff could do to learn a few manners! Tonight I heard some of the most beautiful songs -- some that I'd never heard before, sung by singers I'd never heard before. Rougvie is the perfect host, ensuring everybody gets the chance to sing, and encouraging the shy or reticent! The majority of the people in the room are good, quiet listeners, who appreciate a good song. It's a pity something can't be done about the not-so-quiet minority.
Sunday 25th January
On what was a rather bleary-eyed Sunday morning, I headed back to the Royal Concert Hall for another of Chrissie Stewart's workshops. This time, Chrissie was joined by her brother, Alpin Stewart, to deliver a waulking workshop that engaged sixteen enthusiastic adults around a table, learning about the different stages in the traditional preparation of urine-soaked tweed, and the traditional Gaelic songs that would have accompanied this task. Fortunately, for today's workshop participants, the traditional urine was replaced by spring water! Witnessing the songs in this context lends an insight in to the robust, work-like rhythms that drive the melodies along. Chrissie and Alpin are both blessed with lovely singing voices, so to witness their voices alone was enjoyable, and both also demonstrated impressive knowledge of the history of the subject -- which the workshop participants mined enthusiastically, though possibly as a distraction technique to avoid getting on with the actual waulking and singing!
The New Voices commissions always offer something special at Celtic Connections, and this afternoon's performance from the fervent supporter of Gaelic song,
Griogair, was not to disappoint! Heavily influenced by traditional Gaelic song and poetry, Griogair has composed his own material, very much in the traditional style, but also very much addressing the issues facing a modern, Gaelic-speaking, rural community. Griogair's impassioned vocal performance transcends any language barriers, and you were left in no doubt of his commitment and articulation. Griogair was accompanied by a fine group of young, traditional musicians playing fiddle, uilleann pipes, accordion and clarsach, and it was great to see these young musicians taking their tradition and using it to interpret their contemporary lives, through Griogair's songs. With a burning pride for everything that surrounds him, Griogair is a real troubadour of a song writer -- possibly the Steve Earle of Gaelic song!
My last gig of the weekend found me back in City Halls to hear the stalwart Perthshi
re singer-songwriter, Dougie MacLean. I've seen Dougie perform solo before tonight, but I'd never heard him perform with his band. I was a bit worried that a band might drown out Dougie's gentle storytelling lyrics, but I was glad to hear that the musicians were the masters of understatement, faithfully recreating the wistful, ethereal sound that pervades much of Dougie's recorded work. I had forgotten just how beautiful Dougie's writing is, and tonight was a timely reminder, as Dougie sang such timeless classics as "Singing Land" and "This Love Will Carry," not to mention his legendary anthem, "Caledonia." Dougie was, as ever, very much at ease with his audience, and his generosity in encouraging the audience to sing along with all his songs brought a genuine warmth to the whole evening. I like the way that Dougie's songs pick you up and place you in a gentler world, his affinity with nature and landscapes providing a vivid and overwhelming sense of escape.
Celtic Connections is without doubt one of the premier events on the European festival calendar। Festival director Donald Shaw and his team work tirelessly to put on a festival that continually manages to innovate and excite, across a broad range of musical genres that complement the native traditions. There is a slight danger however, that the festival forgets that at its heart and roots lie a body of individuals that could easily be alienated by the corporate feel that the festival has acquired -- the very same people who are the lifeblood of Britain's thriving folk music scene. There is still a need to engage with this community and embrace their contributions. One aspect of the festival that does manage to remain true to its folk roots is the legendary festival club, providing an informal opportunity to gather for a session or a song. It's a real pity that this has to take place in such an awful venue, the Central Hotel. This once grand building is in a dilapidated state and is hardly a fitting venue for a festival of this calibre. Setting aside the state of the venue, the space available isn't really fit for purpose either. If you arrive late and you want to listen to the music you first need to fight your way through a drunken mêlée, and even if you manage this you're lucky to be able to hear any music above the riotous din! It's not that I object to either form of enjoyment, but I feel that they need to find a more appropriate venue that allows all these things to take place without one impinging on the other. These are relatively minor gripes, however, and I don't want them to detract too much from what is a fantastic event, of which Glasgow can be justifiably proud. Besides, it really is great to have a reason to look forward to January! [
Mike Wilson]

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