Celtic Connections: “Beautiful People, Fantastic Festival, and Amazing Whiskey”
“We’ve had a blast at Celtic Connections in Glasgow! I’d been dying to come to Scotland and it has exceeded my expectations. We played Oran Mor, a breathtaking historic church that was built in 1862. Beautiful people, fantastic festival, and amazing whiskey – I’ll be back soon.” Margo Price
As with last year, writer/photographer Carol Graham was on hand to cover Celtic Connections in Glascow, Scotland, this time around. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Sheer numbers alone – the artists, the venues, and the festival’s length is astounding. Immediately following its end, she was paid a visit by Apple CEO Tim Cook. I think she is still on cloud nine. Here, now, are Carol’s experiences, in her own words:
The US and Scotland have a shared history dating back hundreds of years. The emigration of many Scots to the US during the 19th century created strong connections, and Celtic immigrants influenced American music, notably Appalachian bluegrass and folk. Celtic Connections, now in its 24th year, celebrates these transatlantic links in glorious style, with over 2,300 musicians and 300 events over 18 days in Glasgow – the program itself runs to 91 pages. The largest roots music festival in the world, Celtic Connections is now attracting so many Americana musicians that it feels akin to AmericanaFest, albeit in a colder climate.
This year, as always, was a mixture of Celtic Connections “old hands” and first-time visitors to the festival. The most anticipated newcomer to Glasgow was Margo Price, whose showcase sold out in record time as the buzz about this artist hit the UK. So expectations were very high even before she set foot in Scotland. But, as many ND readers already know, the rumors of Price’s trajectory to stardom are not just hype. She wowed the audience from the first moment. Dressed in a short, sparkling red dress, this was Loretta Lynn taken straight from the cover of White Christmas Blue and transported to modern day.
Combining the voice of an angel with the sexy swagger of Lucinda Williams, Price owned the stage, the venue, and the audience within minutes. Her talent and energy were boundless, at one point she leapt from the stage into the packed audience and seamlessly continued singing among the stunned crowd. After the gig, she stayed behind to sign Midwest Farmer’s Daughter CDs, which quickly sold out – then she stayed even longer, just to chat and sign ticket stubs. ND columnist Amos Perrine said, in a previous Through the Lens column, “I have seen the future, and her name is Margo Price.” I left the gig that night with those same words on my lips.
Price was supported by another first-timer to Glasgow, Aaron Lee Tasjan. Playing solo, he delivered a sharp, witty performance, covering a wide range of musical styles, and I loved his live performance even more than his brilliant Silver Tears album. Since his gig, I’ve bought as much of his back catalog as I can find, and I hope he’ll be back in Scotland again soon.
The magical, unique pairings of transatlantic musicians continued in the annual Roaming Roots Revue, now in its fifth year. Themed around “Women of Song” and curated by Roddy Hart, the show comprised a mix of artists’ own material and cover songs, and the audience pretty much stood jaw-dropped all evening with the the huge number of “wow!” moments.
Contributions ranged from Yola Carter’s stunning covers of Carole King’s “Natural Woman” and Parton’s “Jolene,” Jesca Hoop’s breathtaking version of “Wuthering Heights,” and the duo of Rory Butler and Bryde covering Gillian Welch’s “Miss Ohio.”
Sarah Jarosz also joined the Roaming Roots cast after her own show with guitarist Anthony Da Costa at the City Halls. Relaxed and clearly enjoying the festival, Jarosz included covers of Tom Waits and Dylan, among stunning bluegrass material and songs co-written with Darrell Scott, Aoife O’Donovan, and Parker Millsap. Jarosz’s “support” at her own sold-out City Halls show was Scots artist Blue Rose Code, and many in the audience had bought their ticket specifically to see him – this musician, with his stellar band, is on such a rise that tickets to his shows are selling out within hours. Definitely an emerging artist to actively seek out.
Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys were my “emerging artist” pick in last week’s Lens column, chosen after their brilliant Celtic Connections show. Their version of “Shining in the Distance,” co-written with the Stray Birds’ Maya de Vitry, was truly outstanding.
As an “old hand,” Jerry Douglas is integral to the festival’s annual Transatlantic Sessions, which he is also taking to MerleFest in 2017. This year’s Transatlantic Sessions brought Jim Lauderdale, John Paul White, and Tift Merritt across the pond to join Scots icon Eddi Reader. It was sheer joy to watch all these performers, together with stalwarts Ali Bain and Phil Cunningham and many other traditional musicians, improvise with such perfect timing and sound. Speaking at an additional solo gig, Douglas joked, “The first time I ever came here, I felt like I’d been here before … so I keep coming back!”
This year’s festival was against a backdrop of political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic, and the UK’s Brexit uncertainties had impacted the financing of the festival. Many musicians reacted strongly to the political events through their music and words, with songs of protest and new compositions, but also a resolve to lift our spirits with great music and solidarity – aided by a party atmosphere and a great deal of whiskey! The opening concert, in the glorious Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, featured a powerful piece by Karine Polwart composed specially for the event. Inspired by the emigration of Mary Anne MacLeod from the Isle of Lewis, and the imminent presidential inauguration of her middle son, Donald, the composition “I Am Burned but I Am Not Consumed,” against the backdrop of a full orchestra, moved me to tears.
This year the Charles Rennie Mackintosh church was added as a venue, providing a magnificent backdrop to John Paul White’s solo acoustic show. White’s voice compels you to close your eyes and savor every note, whether he is singing from new album Beulah or drawing on a vast array of cover material. Shovels & Rope played to a packed audience in another new church venue, St. Luke’s, their energy and sound filling the venue’s high ceilings and beautiful acoustics – I even found the perfect photography spot high up in an old pulpit.
Other highlights that need mentioning include the outstanding Mark O’Connor band – one of the festival’s best nights. The O’Connor family combined glorious harmonies and vocals with musicianship on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar that is certainly among the very best in the world, and it was sheer pleasure to be in the audience. In contrast to the energetic performance of the O’Connors, David Francey was a calm, lower key performance, but equally outstanding. His humor and heartfelt lyrics were probably my biggest surprise of the festival (although not a surprise to the packed audience, who had obviously discovered his many talents before I had!).
“The times they are a-changing … back.” – Billy Bragg
Days after the inauguration, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry played to a packed audience of almost 2,000 people in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, which began with every member of the audience being treated to a “dram.” This was followed by a memorable night of railroad songs from Shine a Light, but also an outcry from both musicians about the plight of their countries. Henry’s words “This is where we are, not who we are” preceded a powerful solo set. Bragg’s reworking of a Dylan classic, “The times they are a-changing … back,” and his articulately voiced anger at current events brought the audience to their feet. Far from being depressing, the crowd left on a high, with the words of “Midnight Special” being sung into the night.
The 26 venues for Celtic Connections varied greatly, from Glasgow’s grand and purpose-built Royal Concert Hall to intimate pubs. The city, with its lush Victorian architecture, seems to specialize in converted churches, beautifully repurposed as music venues with perfect acoustics.
Glasgow’s Celtic music scene is supported by its own radio station, Celtic Music Radio, which covered the festival with live sessions and interviews. Most of these shows are available on podcast for a few more weeks, and well worth a listen. Look out for Mike Ritchie’s Americana-influenced programmes, which have already led me to discover many new artists.
The 18 days of Celtic Connections were both exhilarating and exhausting – trying to see as many shows as possible (not easy when there were over 220 to choose from), running between venues, late nights, and a whole range of single malts to sample. This year’s 110,000 attendees probably saw as many different variations of Celtic Connections. I simply love this festival and am privileged to have it in my home city – I’m already counting the days until its 25th anniversary next year.
Now scroll through Carol’s luscious photos on this Valentine’s Day, including one of herself with Margo Price.