From the quiet dignity of a church to the crammed basement of a West End bar for tonight’s Celtic Connections show. A sold out show for Doghouse Roses, the Scottish duo of Paul Tasker and Iona MacDonald who can be considered as our version of Gillian Welch and David Rawling, a similar combination of a superb voice and masterful guitar.
The night opened with a short set from Mandulu & Hephzibah, a pair of local teenagers just starting out who impressed the crowd with their fine voices and harmony singing. Despite their youth they had a fine stage presence and songs such as Ode To The Man Across The Road and The Ballad Of Christian Shaw – about a coven of Paisley witches -were impressive, particularly the cackling end to the latter. Unsigned and as yet unrecorded they are participating in Celtic Connection’s “talent competition,” the Danny Kyle open stage later on in the festival.
John Alexander, gravel voiced and sometime accomplice of Doghouse Roses was up next. Buoyed up by the fine reviews for his latest album, Of These Lands and the news that one of his songs has been picked up by Netflix for the modern western series Longmire, Alexander delved into his moody songs with a fine muddy intensity. Meet Me Where The River Flows, his opening song, showed that he has a similar take on folk blues as that of John Martyn’s, the song having a similar gutsy feel to Martyn’s I Don’t Want To Know About Evil while Used To Be A friend Of Mine delved further back as it fed into the world of Skip James and his ilk although it’s unlikely that James ever wandered through Glasgow’s East End as the protagonist here does.
“I’m going to keep it dark here,” announced Alexander as he offered us the spare and spine tingling Who Why When, his command of solo performance here easily equalling the band set up we caught at his album launch a few months back. He wasn’t solo for too long however as Doghouse Roses’ singer Iona MacDonald came on stage to add harmonies to the kitchen sink drama of Hold On before her reverbed voice added suitably spooky atmosphere to the splendid Seven Cold Curses. Closing with All My Angels Have Fallen and sounding like a rough hewn Fred Neil, Alexander commanded the audience’s attention throughout the show. Dark indeed but also somewhat magisterial.
Headliners, Doghouse Roses, stamped their authority immediately as the opened with a dynamic rendition of Thunder Of The Dawn followed by a fierce take on Feed The Monster, Tasker’s guitar rippling away while MacDonald’s voice soared, the pair in fine form. The pace slowed on the poignant Fairground while the dappled folk of Days Of Grass & Sun spun some elements of light within the dark confines of the packed cellar. A song like Pour could have been written by Richard Thompson while Weather The Storm was a trippy dip into folk psychedelia with crafty guitar arabesques swirling around MacDonald’s assured voice. Able to play ragtime, approximate the LA sounds of vintage CSN&Y and, especially, summon up the glory days of UK folk rock, the duo surprised the audience with an excellent rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy In New York, a wonderful moment on what was a wonderful night.
The pair were joined onstage by John Alexander for the closing numbers. The Rain was a Pentangle like slinky folk blues number, the guitars sliding around MacDonald’s smoky voice and a cover of John Martyn’s I Don’t Want To Know About Evil was the icing on the cake. All in all an excellent night and a fine reminder that Celtic Connections nurtures local talent as well as bringing in international stars.