Music Musings: Our nine days in Celtic Connections 2019

This year, me and my wife didn’t just dream about it or talk about it. Already in the spring of 2018, we decided we have to go to the next Celtic Connections in Glasgow, whatever it takes. So we saved some money and moved some vacations days to 2019 and made a plan to spend about a week and a half in CC2019. And we did.

Having reserved the flights and a very, very nice airbnb flat (that also gave us a new friend – hi and thank you Claire!) already in September, we then waited for the festival programme to be released. Eventually it was out and we sat at our kitchen table, with a “days and concerts” matrix drawn on paper in front of us. We soon realized that because we had already set our travel dates we were going to miss out on some huge favorites – Julie Fowlis & Duncan Chisholm, The Chair, Niteworks… – but as the festival is in any case too long for us to attend start to finish, we just had to accept it and start picking which concerts we want to see most of all during our time frame of Jan 25 – Feb 2.

As debutantes, we were shocked to discover there are several major concerts in the evenings – at the same time! That was a surprise, and choosing one artist over four or five equally excellent or interesting was painful… But the choices were eventually made, with much hand-wringing and sighing. Tickets were promptly bought online and all that was left was to wait.

We arrived in Edinburgh on Jan 24, spent a nice evening with local friends in a pub and moved ourselves to Glasgow the next day. Having barely settled in our “festival home”, the our first concert was very soon at hand…

In all, we saw about a dozen gigs during nine days, and on top of that the Open Stage afternoons at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Here are the gigs we have the most warm memories of:

  • The Conundrum: International Piping Night at the GRCH, Jan 25, was a stunning opener to our concert marathon. All the pipers on stage were breathtakingly good and the international variety was so exhilarating! If one name has to be mentioned in particular, that would be Calum Stewart whose performance, powerful musicality and the way he lives his music on stage rendered us speechless.
Calum Stewart (L), with the fantastic Philippe and Enora Morice from Brittany (photo by me)

  • Breabach & Steph Geremia at the Old Fruitmarket, Jan 26, was a grand evening. We had not heard the Irish flute player and singer Steph Geremia before, and her gig was a total joy! Excellent playing, and I was surprised and excited when I recognized the bodhran grand master John Joe Kelly in Steph’s band. A very good gig! As was also Breabach‘s set, quite the perfect gig just as I was expecting from them – a big thank you and hooray to this versatile band with such immense talent! The only minus in the evening were two guys in business suits who kept up fairly loud and decidedly not-about-music conversation during Breabach’s performance behind us. One fiery look from me toned them down a bit but didn’t shut them up completely. You’re adults, behave, dammit, even if you got the tickets as a business bonus!
Breabach had quite the lightshow! (photo by me)

  • Mischa MacPherson, with a superb ensemble, performed her work
    Bho Èirigh gu Laighe na Grèine – Sun | Moon | Land | Life | Sea at the GRCH in an afternoon matinee concert on the 27th. I have to say it was a very very touching experience for me, defying any cultural boundaries. The work is based on old Hebridean culture and its close connections to nature and the elements, and despite the lyrics being all in Gaelic, it communicated so powerfully… I had tagged her notable talent before but this blew me away, both as a composition and as quietly powerful, focused performance. Mischa told the audience at the end of the concert that they had just received a grant for recording the piece – wonderful!
Mischa MacPherson & Ensemble: quiet intensity (photo by me)

  • The Outside Track & Gráinne Holland at the Mackintosh Church, Jan 27, was another staggeringly great evening. Gráinne Holland‘s songs, often very personal, were enriched by the stories she shared; the performance in the unique former church was powerful and touching. She left the audience in a very receptive mood and when the international Celtic powerhouse of The Outside Track exploded into the groove, it was just a triumph to the very last note of the encore. That band live is something to experience; the albums are great but the punch they have on stage – whew… And such light, such positive energy! I had the pleasure to say thanks to harpist Ailie Robertson after the gig, welcomed the band to Finland any time – and Ailie told me their guitarist Michael Ferrie currently lives in Helsinki! Small world – here’s hoping the rest of the band will find their way to these parts 🙂
The Outside Track looking very calm here, must be one of the slower tunes… (photo by me)

  • When we bought tickets to DuoDuo Quartet & Hannah Rarity, at the GRCH, Jan 28, I only knew Hannah’s work from her debut EP which I liked a lot: beautiful voice and songs, yet far from fragile or too ethereal. DuoDuo Quartet’s concept of music and dance seemed intriguing if a bit mysterious, but live on stage… oh boy. Hannah Rarity gave a very good performance of her songs, featuring lots of excellent material from her brand new full album. And DuoDuo Quartet were something else entirely: a wacky but ambitious concept of three marvellous musicians and one American shuffle-style tap dancer creating music as a quartet and as various duo combinations. It was just exciting, innovative and fun, as the four masters of their art – Natalie Haas on cello, Catriona McKay on harp, Yann Falquet on guitar and Nic Gareiss on tap/shuffle dancing – really laid it out for us. It was one of those gigs you walk out of red-faced and smiling and talking about how some people are just so… wow!
DuoDuo Quartet: not quite the usual band lineup! (photo by me)

  • Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan, at the Mitchell Theatre, Jan 30, proved that all you need to take the stage and capture an audience are good songs, good stories and two good singers/musicians. It was a relaxed, genuinely warm evening of American-tinged singer-songwriter music. No one was in any rush, there was time and space to listen and enjoy. Simple pleasures, maybe, but not easy to make real in a concert situation. Smith & McClennan won us over effortlessly because they are very, very good. Simple as that.

Yes, it is Emily and Jamie. The pic is crap but they were great! (photo by me, unfortunately)

  • After a bit more low key evening the night before, it was an all out party as Blazin’ Fiddles, with Capercaillie’s legendary Karen Matheson as their guest and Galicia’s Tanxugueiras as support, took the stage of King’s Theatre on Jan 31. Tanxugueiras‘ phenomenal female trio fronting the band with their amazing voices and percussions and open, honest stage presence was a thrilling and different experience, generating generous applause and whoops from the audience which in turn moved one of the young ladies in the band to tears. It was such a touching, unscripted moment of direct interaction, I don’t really recall anything like that. And since the audience was well warm after the Galician female power, it was easy to get into the party mood with Blazin’ Fiddles and their fiddle attack squad. It was wild and it was really a blast, tempered and enriched by Karen Matheson‘s songs. In the end, it got so wild on the stage that fiddle chief Bruce MacGregor actually and honestly ripped his trousers during a stage move – and in the very next tune, his glasses simply flew off his head like a rocket, thanks to the more than energetic fiddlin’ – a total blast for everyone, himself included 😀

Them Blazin’ Fiddles. Too bad there’s no sound here 😉 (photo by me)

  • On the night of Feb 1, we found ourselves in Queen Margaret Union’s music club, waiting for the Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo’s band and then Ross Ainslie’s and Ali Hutton’s Symbiosis project whose two albums are among my very favorites. As it turned out, the Symbiosis gig, excellently performed as it was with stage filled with superior musicians, was a bit of a challenge for me, as we were very close to the stage and a stack of amplifiers, and the sound guy had decided to really turn it up… So all credit to the wonderful band for their music (I continue to love the albums!) and a bit of a “let’s not do that again” to the sound tech… Having said that, the opening act, Galicia’s Anxo Lorenzo, was exhilarating and awesome! His way of blending all kinds of music happily together and playing his bagpipe like an electric guitar (with all the appropriate body language!) is just so cool and and his band can really, really groove insanely. I want more of this stuff!
Anxo & band – grrreat stuff (photo by me)

  • All things must pass, and so did Celtic Connections 2019. Our last gig was on Feb 2 in another former church, St Luke’s & the Winged Ox, with yet another Galician band, Talabarte, who supported the main act, the utterly brilliant RURA. Talabarte were actually very good with their combination of various European styles; colorful and lively. Unfortunately too many in the crowd on the club floor concentrated on chatting instead of the music, and we moved up to the balcony where the folks were less talkative. As for RURA, I have nothing but praise. The four guys took the stage very confidently and from the first beats there was no looking back. What makes them special and stand out is not only the tight and impressive band playing; they can insert seriously challenging bits and rhythmic mines into the music without breaking the groove or sounding self-conscious or “prog” in the wrong way. They took quite a risk by playing long, quiet, hypnotic sequences from their latest album – which is totally brilliant – and when some people went on talking in the audience during those, others silenced them by hissing and hushing, which was great. For the finale and the encore, the band let totally loose and the almost 8-minute encore had some of the fiercest playing I’ve seen anywhere, so our CC2019 really went out with a bang, a very happy one
RURA @ St Luke’s. Feb 2, 2019. One of the best gigs ever – thx guys! (photo by me)

…and so, Celtic Connections 2020? We’ll wait and see…

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