To say that there was excitement that Bonny Light Horseman were returning to Celtic Connections was an understatement. Described previously in AUK as “the greatest psychedelic-tinged folk-rock band in the world” it was clear that great things would be expected. Happily, great things were duly delivered.
A collaboration between three outstanding musicians, Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), and Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, The National, Hiss Golden Messenger), Bonny Light Horseman have released two albums to almost universal acclaim. Combining contemporary US indie-folk with traditional folk music from across the British Isles made them a perfect fit for Celtic Connections and their gig at St Luke’s right at the end of the 2023 Celtic Connections duly sold out in quick time.
The trio formed in 2018 after an invite from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner to perform at the annual Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival in Wisconsin. From the outset, the trio realised they had something special between them and a subsequent residency in Berlin saw them begin to flesh out ideas for what was to become their self-titled debut album. Their first album saw them radically reworking and even rewriting traditional folk tunes and imbuing them with the band’s own unique sound. The follow-up saw the trio taking the magic they’d discovered in reworking traditional songs and applying it to a collection of new songs and the resulting album, ‘Rolling Golden Holy’ was every bit as fabulous as their debut.
Even at the end of Celtic Connections – eighteen days and 300 events with more than 100,000 attendances at 25 venues across Glasgow – there was no sign of gig-fatigue from the audience packing out one of Scotland’s best venues. The trio wandered out on stage to a rapturous welcome and from the outset they exuded a gentle calm that seemed to flow through their music. They played almost everything from both albums and the quality never wavered. Opening with the magnificent ‘Exile’ and closing with equally excellent ’10,000 Miles’ everything in between just served to highlight what an astonishingly talented group they are.
Johnson’s sweet falsetto works so well with Mitchell’s voice it feels like they’ve been singing together for decades, not just a few years. Johnson seems to literally centre the group; standing centre-stage and switching between banjo and acoustic guitar, he counts in most of the songs. To his left, Mitchell is simply a breath-taking performer. It seems wrong to pick out one of this band as the star, but she is certainly the stardust that’s sprinkled on every song. As she sings and plays her guitar her hands seem to flutter around her, but somehow she never misses a beat or a note. She’s a superb singer and she’s warm, funny, sincere, and utterly charming as she engages with the audience. Kaufman is a brilliant guitarist coaxing incredible sounds and solos from his guitars, especially his black Radack Pontiac, a guitar that in its essence seems to combine contemporary indie sounds with a timeless acoustic folk character that works so perfectly with this band.
The trio were backed by appropriately restrained but completely effective drumming and bass-playing and, as if the evening couldn’t get any better, the band returned for their very well-deserved encores with a special guest on accordion – the very lovely and talented Martin Green from Lau. All-in-all, a perfect night.
The evening began with a solo set from Ontario-born Cat Clyde. She has a voice and a half. Performing solo with just an electric guitar to accompany herself, she sings her songs with fabulous control and power. So much so, that even a few songs into her impressive set, her voice can still startle you with its strength but it never seems harsh or overly forced. With her songs ranging from indie folk to all-out blues, she can summon up a serious bluesy roar or even a distinctive country twang and can bring to mind classic singers from Loretta Lynn to Etta James – she really is that good. She has an album about to come out and is touring the UK around now with her band, and if you get a chance to hear her, you won’t regret it.
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