This week we begin doing something new. Well, two things. This will be my first column devoted exclusively to a music festival — Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Scotland — and the first time a single photographer, Carol Graham, is featured.
I met Carol and her husband several years ago in Nashville at the AMA Festival. She has also provided the narrative of this week’s column. A short bio is provided below.
Celtic Connections could be described as the most extensive roots music festival in the world. This January’s festival featured over 2,500 artists and 300 events at 26 venues. To categorize it further is challenging, and no two people are going to experience it the same way. Now in its 23rd year, it lasts for 18 days during Glasgow’s coldest, dreichest (the Scottish word for dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty, and miserable weather!), and darkest month, allowing musicians and music fans to bond enthusiastically over good music, whisky, and a dislike of rain.
To quote Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids, after playing for three days at the festival this year, “Celtic Connections is a collision of Scottish and Irish and Appalachian music … none of which we play. But songs about death are a common thread, and we also know some English pop: Pink Floyd.”
The result is an eclectic mix of the most talented musicians from across the world coming together in impromptu and unique jam sessions, as well as showcasing their own music to the festival’s 100,000 attendees. At times, the festival is so lively that floors shake; at others, even the largest venues are hushed to complete silence.
But Celtic Connections doesn’t feel like a vast festival. Although some venues are large, many gigs take place in converted churches and warehouses, with Glasgow’s Victorian architecture adding a sense of community. Glasgow is often described as Scotland’s friendliest city, and this is frequently witnessed in the humorous banter between musicians and their audiences, resulting in intimate and memorable gigs, even in the larger venues.
Carol has been attending, and photographing, Celtic Connections for more than five years. During that time the festival has developed a significant transatlantic and Americana presence, sometimes feeling as if AmericanaFest has moved across the Atlantic. The musicians integrate incredibly well with Scotland’s traditional fiddles, pipes, and accordions. Although it might sound like a recipe for disaster, the combination of Phil Cunningham’s accordion with Jerry Douglas’s Dobro turns out to be a marriage made in heaven.
Over the last few years, highlights have included:
Transatlantic Sessions: Hosted by Jerry Douglas, these annual sold-out events always comprise a wonderful mix of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic playing together. This year’s sessions saw Rhiannon Giddens, the Milk Carton Kids, Karen Matheson, Cara Dillon, and Joe Newberry, amongst others, playing together and covering an eclectic range of music from Robert Burns to David Bowie. Similarly, the regular Roaming Roots Review mixes a range of artists. This year’s theme, “Troubadour,” saw Kris Kristofferson join Anderson East, Frazey Ford, Iain Morrison, and Blue Rose Code to cover songs from John Prine, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Amy Winehouse.
Showcasing new talent: Over the last five years, Celtic Connections has showcased artists relatively unknown in the UK, including Sturgill Simpson, Anthony D’Amato, Rod Picott, and Lindi Ortega. Each of these artists was delightful to see in small venues early in their careers. This year’s highlights were Blue Rose Code – an incredible singer-songwriter originally from Scotland, who launched his latest CD at Celtic Connections, and James Hill, a ukulele virtuoso from Nova Scotia (“New Scotland”). Both gigs sold out quickly and I hope and expect that both musicians will return next year to much bigger venues and even greater acclaim.
The big names: Celtic Connections continues to attract the best of Americana music, including Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Old Crow Medicine Show, Rickie Lee Jones, Daryl Scott, Richard Thompson, and Van Morrison. This year, Robert Plant also turned up to pay tribute to Bert Jansch.
Unique commissions: Under the leadership of Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw, the festival is increasingly commissioning new compositions, which push boundaries in exciting ways. This year saw a new Scottish interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 Hejira album, re-written in Scots dialect as Pilgrimer, featured a stellar cast of musicians, including US guitarist Larry Carlton, who played on Hejira.
Celtic Connections 2017 will be held in Glasgow next year from January 19 through February 5. Carol hopes to see you there.
Carol Graham is based in Glasgow, Scotland, but her soul lives in Nashville. Her photos combine her passions for photography and live music, mostly Americana. Photography is in her blood, as her father was a photographer and she spent untold hours as a child in a darkroom developing black-and-white prints. While trained as a research scientist, with a doctorate in biomedicine and cancer research, Carol now juggles music photography with a full-time job at the University of Glasgow. She describes herself as a “mirrorless Sony girl” whose most recent photos are taken with an A7R and a 90 mm, f2.8 lens. Carol also enjoys capturing music on video – her YouTube channel is MissOhio1000, username inspired by Gillian Welch.