Singer Blick Bassy who performed at the National Piping Centre as part of the Focus France showcase at Celtic Connections. Photo by Alasdair R Maclean
Editor Jo Frost selects some favourites from her Celtic Connections 2016 experience
My winter pilgrimage to Glasgow and Showcase Scotland (the annual industry gathering at Celtic Connections) this year took place over the last five days of the festival and also coincided with some dreadful weather – even by Scottish standards. But it takes more than a bit of foul weather to dampen this festival’s spirit.
The city’s most atmospheric venue, the Old Fruitmarket, is still a firm festival favourite, although this year it had some competition, courtesy of two new venues: the Drygate Brewery –a terrific new space, boasting a mouthwatering selection of craft beers – and the Mackintosh Church on the other side of town, the only church ever designed by the Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
My first night (January 27) turned out to be an excellent indicator of the quality that followed. First up was uilleann piper Jarlath Henderson giving the premiere of his forthcoming solo album of songs. There’ll be more about Henderson and his new project in the next issue. He was followed by former Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens who simply shone alongside her band and proved she really is the whole package, with her command of the banjo and fiddle, plus the potency of her choice of old-time and blues songs. Giddens also completely stole the show as guest singer in the Transatlantic Sessions’ line-up.
Occitan band Moussu T e lei Jouvents turned on the Gallic charm at their National Piping Centre showcase. Photo by Alasdair R Maclean
When faced with such a vast programme, there can be a tendency to stick to familiar favourites rather than venture out into the unknown. So when I opted to see Lau – a band I’ve probably seen perform live more than any other – at the Royal Concert Hall (January 28), it felt a little self-indulgent. But the trio truly excelled themselves with a stunning spectacle of a show, complete with dazzling lighting, a string quartet and an encore with The Unthanks. It was a concert that simply underlined exactly why Lau continue to be the foremost experimental folk trio on the circuit.
The following night (January 29) I ventured out to the Mackintosh Church. Its high ceilings and Art Nouveau features perfectly complemented the understated and elegant music of RANT – comprising of four of Scotland’s finest fiddlers: Lauren MacColl, Sarah-Jane Summers, Bethany and Jenna Reid. Their beautifully serene set, showcasing music from their new album due out in May, also featured guest vocalists Ewan McLennan and Julie Fowlis. There’s no shortage of fiddle bands at Celtic Connections but this quartet really excel with their delicate and nuanced sound – a welcome departure from the high velocity and frenetic approach of some other acts.
The Scottish band Breabach performed songs from their forthcoming album, Astar, at the Drygate Brewery’s Late Night Sessions. Photo by Jo Frost
The Late Night Sessions at the Drygate Brewery proved to be an enjoyable and civilised alternative to the sweaty, standing room only Festival Club at the Art School. Standout acts were Scottish band Breabach (pictured above), Canadian ukulele player James Hill with Anne Janelle on cello; the kora player with the best smile in the business, Seckou Keita and Dublin folk foursome Lynched.
After the battering winds of Storm Gertrude, there was an altogether more tropical vibe at Drygate on Saturday night, courtesy of Bixiga 70 (pictured below) – the Sao Paulo-based ten-piece who enthralled the crowd with their big, bold brass and percussion-fuelled Brazilian Afrobeat sounds. Within a short space of time, they had the entire room up and dancing like they were in a Latin nightclub.
Besides all the official festival programme, the Showcase Scotland delegates got to see some close-up, special performances from many of the artists at the National Piping Centre. This year’s showcase from the partner country France featured Cameroonian rising star Blick Bassy (pictured top); Anne Carrere, star of Piaf! the show about the iconic singer; much-loved Marseillais band, Moussu T e lei Jovents (also pictured) and newcomers Zoufris Maracas (featured in #114).
On the final afternoon of the festival, the Brazilian festival MIMO was announced as the 2017 partner country with Bixiga 70 giving the delegates a brief yet delicious taster of what we might expect for next year. Watch out for a feature about the band in the July issue.
It’s now become a tradition to have a final jaunt up to the Art School, for the Festival Club where I caught the tail-end of sarod and percussion duo Circle of Sound (aka Soumik Datta and Bernhard Schimpelsberger), together with Cormac Byrne on bodhrán and the new Gaelic group, Imar with a talented young line-up including members from Barrule, RURA, Talisk and Manran. Definitely an act to watch. Roll on January 2017!
Watch highlights of the festival on the BBC site.