As we waltzed oh so carefully into 2021, Celtic Connections, Scotland’s annual winter celebration of worldwide roots music, was the first major festival to accept the inevitable and move to a digital platform. In 2020, around 2000 musicians took part in 300 events across the city of Glasgow – for many who attended, this was actually the last time they saw live music before the pandemic – and really, there was no way to replicate this online this year. Instead, a 19 day programme of events did feature 30 concerts showcasing over 100 artists from around the globe including Spain, Denmark, Gambia and Canada but the bulk of the shows were pre-recorded in several Glasgow venues which would normally host events. In a normal year, there’s always rich picking for fans of Americana and even in this slimmed-down format there were several shows which demanded our attention.
Come Away In with Karine Polwart, Eddi Reader, Rab Noakes, Siobhan Miller & Findlay Napier
We kicked off our viewing with this solidly Scottish line-up, filmed in a songwriter’s circle style in the grand marbled opulence of Glasgow’s City Chambers. Karine Polwart introduced the show explaining that her song which gave the show its title was inspired by a Rabbie Burns ode, ‘The Wren’s Nest’, a song which rang with a message of welcome and hospitality and which Polwart linked to Glasgow’s influx of refugees and asylum speakers. This note of inclusion was present in many of the songs on offer as Rab Noakes sang of the immigrants who worked at his local car wash while he also celebrated the 1960’s Freedom Riders in his rendition of ‘Jackson Greyhound’. Findlay Napier’s ‘Wireburners’ explored the underbelly of life on the street where the discovery of something to sell to the scrap yard might bring in some cash.
Glasgow was built on the back of immigrants who toiled in its industries and this was reflected in songs about the shipyards by Polwart and Napier while Siobhan Miller offered an excellent rendition of the miner’s song, ‘Pound A Week Rise’, popularised here by Dick Gaughan. Pulling it all back to Glasgow, Eddi Reader sang of the bones of Saint Valentine (which reside in a Glasgow church) along with an excellent reading of ‘My Home Town’, a song written by Boo Hewerdine (who was present throughout on guitar), while Findlay Napier brought the virtual house down with a ribald rendition of an old favourite, ‘Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice’.
Blue Rose Code
It’s still weird to see a band occupy a stage and play their hearts out with no audience there to support them, to applaud the solos and the songs, to supply much of the energy which typifies live music. However, Ross Wilson’s Blue Rose Code, tonight an eight-piece line up, were well able to supply enough energy to light up the show while displaying their obvious delight at being able to play together again.
Filmed in the Royal Concert Hall, Wilson opened the show with the gorgeous ‘Starlit’, highlighting his soulful voice and heartfelt emotion. Later he offered a tremendous rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’, a serendipitous choice given that this show was aired on the same day as the Presidential inauguration which saw Garth Brooks sing this song (memories of four years ago when Trump was inaugurated casting a baleful spell on some festival gigs sprang to mind). No such trepidation tonight as seeing the band lock together on a brace of songs which included ‘Ebb & Flow’, ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ and ‘London City Lights’ was a joy to behold. They conjured their own take on Caledonian soul on the rumbling intro to ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ while ‘London City Lights’ opened with a hop and a skip before ending with a ferocious rush of guitar and thundering drums.
Lowering the temperature towards the end of the show, Wilson sang his seasonal offering, ‘I Wish You Peace In Your Heart’ which was released just before Christmas – a song which remains topical with its hopes for a New Year – before ending the show with a very moving rendition of ‘Grateful‘ which he dedicated to a friend and fan of his, David Ferguson of Edinburgh who, sadly, died late last year. Despite the absence of applause there was a real sense of occasion throughout as Wilson positively beamed from the screen while sax player Konrad Wiszniewski was a tower of power.
The Secret Sisters
The production values, the camera work and sound quality, allowed this virtual Celtic Connections to rise well above the steady stream of live streaming gigs many of us are so used to now. The Secret Sisters, zooming in from Alabama and a sunlit homely front room had to make do with one camera to capture their short performance, but their songs, mainly from their latest album ‘Saturn Return’ and stripped down to two voices and a guitar, were superb.
They opened with ‘Silver’, a song about wisdom, mother earth and mothers, and transformed it into a gorgeous Appalachian gospel threnody. Their sibling voices gave birth to glorious harmonies throughout with ‘Cabin’ and ‘Healer In The Sky’ standing tall from the band versions on the album. With lengthy introductions and anecdotes, the sisters captivated the audience (or at least this writer) and their renditions of ‘The Tennessee River Runs Low’ and ‘He’s Fine’ showed that they are well versed in songs of southern mystery and heartache.
Kris Drever/Rhiannon Giddens/Calahen Morrison/Dean Owens with Joey Burns
Heading to the close of the festival, this was billed as the Americana night and it certainly rewarded all who tuned in. Kris Drever opened the show playing with double bass player Euan Burton and percussionist/keyboard player Louis Abbot. The trio were quite spectacular in a low key manner with Abbot’s contributions especially impressive while Drever’s guitar skills underpinned his languid delivery of some of his best songs. ‘I’ll Always Leave The Light On’ was strong and couthy while ‘Scapa Flow 1919′ was an epic in miniature, a historical tale which would put Al Stewart to shame. A new song, ‘Hunker Down’, was a fine reflection of these lockdown days.
Rhiannon Giddens, accompanied by Francesco Turrisi, both lit chiaroscuro on the stage of the National Concert Hall in Dublin, gave what was perhaps the most powerful performance we saw at the festival. She opened with an incredible version of Alice Gerrard’s ‘Calling Me Home’, immediately tying together bluegrass, gospel and Celtic music as Turrisi’s accordion affected a wonderfully wearied drone. After it was over Giddens apologised for opening with such a “downer” but went on to say that it kind of summed up where everyone was at right now and then went on to promise songs of heartbreak, death and transitions. First off, she sang an Italian song suffused with lost love before breaking into an absolutely breathtaking performance of ‘Oh Death’, the traditional song popularised by Ralph Stanley. This was quite astounding as, aside from Giddens’ impassioned performance, Turrisi coaxed some amazing sounds from what appeared to a bodhran. This was surely the performance of the festival. She closed with a more upbeat message, saying that you can’t have the down without the up, as she picked up her fiddle and turned to Sister Rosetta Tharpe for a truly engaging rendition of ‘Up Above My Head’, urging the viewers to sing along. All in all, Giddens was a marvel to behold.
Dark indeed was the night and Cahalen Morrison, best known for his work as a duo with Eli West and also with modern day cosmic cowboys, Western Centuries, sang three songs from his recently released solo album, ‘Wealth Of Sorrow’, which fitted the mood. From New Mexico but with a great grandfather who was a Gaelic bard in the isle of Lewis, Morrison kind of epitomises those Celtic connections we go on about. Indeed, his first song, ‘The Mighty Beasts of Holm’, reflected Drever’s earlier ‘Scapa Flow’ as Morrison sang of the shipwreck which killed 200 Lewis men heading home from the war in France in 1918. ‘The Month Of May’ found him on banjo singing about love lost before he sang in acapella ‘The Whole Broken World’, which had a similar intensity to it as Giddens’ ‘Oh Death’, lyrics about bleached bones and all. Darkly delicious, Morrison tied Appalachia and Scots folk together as if they were Siamese twins.
Closing the show, Dean Owens allowed us the first real peek into his eagerly anticipated album ‘Sinner’s Shrine’, which he has recorded in Tucson with Calexico. Filmed in Scotland, the USA and Berlin, and then skilfully edited to allow the players to appear as if they were playing together in real time, it bode well for the forthcoming album. Owens and double bass player Kevin McGuire were joined by Joey Burns and Martin Wenk from Calexico with Burns sporting a wicked looking vintage Airline guitar. The guitar was prominent on the first song, ‘Arizona’, as Burns unleashed a scorching solo midway through, and throughout the set he coaxed some wonderful sounds from it. Along with Wenk’s unmistakable signature trumpet sound, the pair added that Sonoran desert spice to Owens’ take on the southwest. ‘The Hopeless Ghosts’, inspired by a Townes Van Zandt remark, was quite sublime and perfectly captured that sense of existential ennui which characterised the best of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western movies while ‘Companera’ was suffused with sorrow expressed in a Mexican corrido style with Wenk’s trumpet dominant.
Owens had reworked two older songs of his for the project with ‘New Mexico’ given a Technicolor makeover while ‘After The Rain’, a remake of an old Felsons’ song, originally called ‘Shine Like The Road’, has matured and gained gravitas but it retained its essential message of hope and the quartet delivered it with a delicate beauty.
So, that’s Celtic Connections in miniature. The shows we watched were all pretty much superb and there were around two dozen others featuring that panoply of music which has defined Celtic Connections since its inception. With with 27,000 virtual tickets sold to audiences from over 60 countries it shows that there’s a powerful hunger out there for some semblance of live music and for 2021, Celtic Connections have set the bar high.