Celtic Connections [in Glasgow] has come and gone for another year. As is our usual habit, we opted to attend mostly concerts that were one-of-a-kind rather than the ones featuring performers who you can hear at other times of the year. Experience has shown that by doing this we almost always come away with some amazing memories that can never be repeated, and I have to say that this year may have been the best ever. I’ll just mention a few highlights…
I’m always a bit skeptical when a group of top, well-known artists get together for a one-off gig. Seems like most of the time you find that the sum of the parts is considerably less wonderful than the individuals would have been on their own.
I’m happy to say that was not at all the case when English Geordie Jez Lowe, Scotland’s Archie Fisher, and Canadian James Keelaghan took the stage together at one of my favourite venues, St. Andrews in the Square. These seasoned veterans showed remarkable respect for each others’ material and their voices blended easily whenever harmony was called for. Apparently, the three met at a gig in Canada where they were all on the bill and began playing together just for fun. They’ve done one short tour in the US and Canada and it sounds like there may be another in the offing.
Another gem of a concert was Tim Edey, who played in the small, Mackintosh-designed hall at the Glasgow Art Club. I’ve known Tim for a while now, as he once lived nearby, and I’ve heard him play in sessions and with all sorts of bands, but never as a solo. He’s a sensitive and exciting guitar player who I would compare to Tony McManus or Gerry O’Beirne, and also one of the best squeeze box players around. Add to that the great stories he tells about each song or tune and the unfettered joy he puts into everything he says or plays, and you have everything you need for an exceptional evening of music.
Sometimes, the surprises you get at Celtic Connections come not so much from what you hear that’s new, but from the expectations you have that are completely and delightfully wrong. We went to one of the main concerts in Glasgow Concert Hall to see Lau, with an opening set by The Unthanks. I was eager to hear Lau’s innovative material, and although I’ve never been into the music of the Unthanks I was at least curious to hear them play live.
By the time the intermission came around, I was completely converted by the intricate and innovative music of the Unthanks and their backing band/orchestra, and looking forward to giving a couple of their albums a closer listen. On then to Lau. We should have left after the Unthanks, I’m afraid. After the subtlety of the Unthanks, Lau seemed to be just loud and occasionally weird for no apparent reason. You just never know…
Our final concert was the opening night of Transatlantic Sessions, the annual combination of artists curated by Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and dobro wizard Jerry Douglas. More about that later in this column, but suffice to say that I was blown away by another act that was new to me, The Milk Carton Kids.
One of my favourite musicians in any genre was Leonard Bernstein. His music spoke eloquently, and so did his spoken words. Here are some particularly relevant quotes:
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
“In the olden days, everybody sang. You were expected to sing as well as talk. It was a mark of the cultured man to sing.”
The Grammy Awards ceremony was held in February. I usually have a lot to say about the folk and trad categories, but not this time. Not that there was anything wrong- I’m well pleased to see names like Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn in there among the winners. But it seems as if some of the categories are almost overlapping each other, while there are some genres that don’t seem to fit anywhere. I can’t really say what the difference is between American Roots and Americana, and it’s hard to tell exactly what Folk is. There doesn’t seem to be any place at all for what we loosely call Celtic music any more. I’m not sure whether this says something about the Grammys and the recording industry, or about the music itself.
For once, though, the live performances overshadowed the awards. Poor Adele had her mic problems, but at least we all knew she was performing live. Lady Gaga’s tribute to David Bowie was unexpectedly spot-on and moving. And the Eagles with Jackson Browne…I’m not sure any of them were emotionally ready for that performance, but they managed it with dignity.
Andy White, the drummer who played on the definitive version of The Beatles’ Love Me Do, never earned more than his original session fee of £7 from the track.
John Lennon‘s eyesight was so poor that he was legally blind without his glasses.
What do Paul Ramone, Bernard Webb, A Smith, Apollo C Vermouth, Country Hams, Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington and The Fireman have in common? They’re all pseudonyms used by Paul McCartney in his career as a songwriter.
In 1996, Ringo Starr appeared in a Japanese advertisement for applesauce, which is what “Ringo” means in Japanese.
Transatlantic Sessions has been around since 1995, with a total of seven configurations, or ‘episodes’ as they’re called once they reach the television screen. It’s always intriguing to see who founders Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas will have invited to the party and how they will mesh as an ensemble. As in the past, the new lineup gave their first performance in a sold-out concert at Celtic Connections, and it was, I think, one of the best ever. In addition to the superstar house band, this year’s performers include singers Karen Matheson (Scotland) and Cara Dillon (Ireland). From North America there is Joe Newberry, along with my new favourites The Milk Carton Kids. Now, the whole idea of Transatlantic Sessions is to bring the best from both sides of the pond together to perform both as soloists and as an ensemble, but at the opening concert it was clear that there would be a superstar among the group in the person of Rhiannon Giddens, who is on a sabbatical of unspecified length from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She’s a huge talent with a voice that could fill a stadium. Her reworking and interpretation of old songs is insightful, and her performance is mesmerising. Like a young Marilyn Monroe, her style is sensual but natural… it’s just who she is. And by the end of every song she sang, the audience was on its collective feet applauding and roaring approval. I suspect that some day in the future, we will be telling our grandchildren that we were among the lucky ones who got to see and hear her perform live.
Linda Dewar is an American singer-songwriter who now makes her home in Scotland. In addition to her solo work she is one third of the multi-genre band Conundrum as well as an occasional duo-partner with folksinger Douglas Craik.