Celtic Connections celebrates its most successful year
It has been both exhilarating and exhausting. After 18 days, 2000 artists, 300 events, 20 venues and 110,000 attendees, the mega-festival that is Celtic Connections 2014 is finally over for another year.
When Tim O’Brien, stalwart of the renowned Transatlantic Sessions, flew into Scotland half-way through the event, he joked to the audience and fellow musicians ‘You guys look like you’ve been through a war. A good war!’ And that pretty much sums up Celtic Connection’s 17th, and most successful, year.
It’s safe to say that no two attendees of Celtic Connections 2014 will have had the same experience. Events ranged from intimate gigs where exciting new talent can be discovered, to very large venues hosting eclectic mixes of international musicians from all corners of the globe. My review of the last 18 days could easily fill as many pages – so this is only a flavour of this year’s highlights.
I love small venues and I love finding new musicians, and Celtic Connections 2014 delivered this in spades. I’d been a fan of Lindi Ortega since hearing ‘Tin Star’ last year but hadn’t been lucky enough to see her live until now.With a hugely powerful voice and brimming with confidence and talent, Lindi Ortega is much, much more than a pretty face and long legs. Possibly even better live than on recent ‘Tin Star’ CD, she was accompanied by amazing guitarist James Robertson, and also a drummer for a few songs. Now with three albums to draw from and a broad range of material, Lindi moved quickly through slow murder ballads to loud rockabilly, but with a style that is uniquely her own. The venue for the gig was in the small Tron Theatre, which doesn’t have a raised stage area, which provided an intimate house-concert feel to the sold-out gig.
Nashville-based Sturgill Simpson, who opened for Lindi Ortega, was one of the best discoveries from Celtic Connections. Having caught him briefly at Americanafest in 2013 I knew he was a name to watch, but his set far exceeded my expectations.He covered most of the tracks from his forthcoming CD ‘High Top Mountain’, but also threw in a handful of cover songs, demonstrating the range and power of his voice, and that he’s not only a Country Boy.
I have written positive things about Blue Rose Code, aka London-based Ross Wilson, previously, so it was thrill to hear him again at Celtic Connections where he showcased some new material that will be on his 2014 CD, ‘Ancient Of Days’. Blue Rose Code has been described as a cross between John Martyn and Van Morrison, and these influences are certainly apparent, but his sound is truly magical and unique. He dropped hints that his new CD will feature the legendary bass player Danny Thompson and Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, so it’s safe to say that his ‘Ancient Of Days’ will be high up in my 2014 albums of the year.
One of the main benefits of having so many musicians travel to Celtic Connections each year is the number of combinations that arise at gigs – some musicians such as Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas are ubiquitous, popping up frequently for transatlantic collaborations. This year, one highlight was Aoife O’Donovan, who was frequently seen in the audience as well as on-stage, creating several opportunities for seemingly spontaneous pairings.Her a cappella version of the Hank Williams’ classic ‘A House of Gold’ with Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket was certainly one of the best memories from this year. She also appeared solo several times, causing audiences to fall silent in awe of her amazing voice and guitar playing.
The Milk Carton Kids made a return trip to Glasgow for Celtic Connections, performing in a converted church that suited their voices and guitar playing perfectly. Kenneth Pattengale was putting on a brave face as he was clearly suffering from a head-cold, so there was possibly a little less banter than usual, but still made for one of the best gigs ever. They invited Glasgow-based, Kenyan singer-songwriter Genesee to join them on-stage for ‘Michigan’, which added a perfect additional harmony to their classic song.
The venues for Celtic Connections 2014 ranged greatly in size. With 110,000 attendees, tickets for most gigs in the smaller venues sold out quickly – and unlike many other festivals there are no wristband options, so forward planning is essential. At the other end of the scale, Celtic Connections added Glasgow’s newest venue this year – the SSE Hydro is a purpose-built music venue that seats 12,000 – hopefully still too small to attract a Taylor Swift tour, but a massive venue for Glasgow. It played host to the International Burns Concert on the Bard’s 255th birthday, bringing together artists from many continents to celebrate the music of Robert Burns, including Rachel Sermanni, Capercaillie, and Salsa Celtica. The event also took the opportunity to pay tribute to the late Nelson Mandela, who had a close association with Glasgow since the 1960s and who was awarded ‘Freedom of the City’ in 1981 during his imprisonment. The South African veterans, The Mahotella Queens, were the highlight of the evening with their colourful and energetic set.
Other notable highlights of Celtic Connections included sold-out performances by The Stray Birds and Elephant Revival; Shawn Colvin participating in an all-star Transatlantic Sessions, and a welcome visit to Glasgow by The Deep Dark Woods. A final highlight of Celtic Connections to me was finding Anthony D’Amato, a New York-based singer-songwriter that I hadn’t previously known. Playing a solo opening set with his guitar and harmonica, and charming the packed audience from his first chords, he quickly led me to search out his music and buy his previous CDs. His gig had a raw energy that isn’t quite so apparent in his CDs, which are more upbeat than his solo set, but Anthony is definitely a name to watch out for in 2014.
See my YouTube playlist for some video footage of the highlights from Celtic Connections mentioned above: