Notes from Celtic Connections 2020, part 5

Fri 31

The final Friday of CC2020 was also the Brexit day for UK – and Scotland but no sign of anything out of the ordinary was to be seen as we trod across the Glasgow city centre to St Luke’s for another Finnish-Scottish night.

An oh lordy what a show our countrywomen and men put on. The electrifed Nordic folk of Okra Playground worked like magic and both the band and the crowd were really on fire for almost an hour. Okra Playground have found a nice balance between the shamanistic ”out of the dark northern forests” thing, lighter dance melodies and tech-heavy almost-pop, and the mix was heady and powerful that night. Triumph for Suomi and Helsinki!

The joyous night continued with Ross Ainslie and his band’s solid and ambitious showcase of both his new material from a new album still in the works and, then, his *entire* 2017 album, Sanctuary, a modern classic in the Celtic genre.

As Ross’ music can be proggy, with complex structures, the gig could have been in trouble following Okra’s party mood, but the sheer excellence of the playing and the colours of the music easily carried the evening. Even the live sound was excellent, giving justice to the Sanctuary Suite’s many hues and dynamics.

When the stage was left empty after Ross’ band had waved their byes, the sound crew put on ”We Are Family” and, as the very last tune of the evening, Sex Pistols’ ”God Save The Queen”, with its iconic line ”no future, no future, no future in England’s dreaming”. The point was well and truly taken, as Scotland’s forced separation from the EU was mere 20 minutes away. We left the scene and merged with the dark of Merchant City and Glasgow Green in silence as the separation became hard reality…

Sat 1

…but the next day dawned as usual despite the turning of history’s pages, and we hurried to the GRCH to catch the future of Scottish trad, as the Oban High School of Trad Music gave a concert featuring major names like Benedict Morris, Hannah Rarity and Ross Miller.

It’s simply incredible how that country produces young talent to their folk and trad scene all the time, and the Oban school’s concert was proof positive this will not stop any time soon. It was a very enjoyable afternoon with both the young ones, the pros and them all together.

After the two hours’ session, we had some time to breathe (with someone doing some shopping at the Yarn Cake, Glasgow’s nicest yarn shop and cafe – and no, this was not a paid advert) before heading out to our penultimate gig, yet another Finnish-Scottish extravaganza, this one at the Mackintosh Church.

Finland has produced some fairly eccentric musical talent over the years (Lordi, Leningrad Cowboys, the over-the-top metal of Children of Bodom and the opera metal of Nightwish) and the concept of a harmonica – or mouth organ – quartet may sound like a joke. But Sväng, a unit almost 20 years old, is no joke but a highly regarded ensemble that blends virtuosity, sheer musical brilliance and – yes – Finnish eccentricities into one charming package.

On the night, their slot included Finnish folk, music from the Balkan region, their own pieces, tango, a Harry Potter film music suite and some Sibelius. Not kidding. All this on four harmonicas, and without any hesitation and all in impeccable taste. The audience cheered and lapped it up and we were happy to note that a few days later Hamish Napier tagged Sväng as one of his high points of the entire CC2020. Nice 🙂

RANT as headliners presented their flawless ”chamber Celtic” that often is more classical than any kind of folk, and so fascinating for that very reason. I love it when boundaries are broken gently but firmly and with utmost skill and class, and RANT are at the very top of that game, with Anna Massie’s hilarious stories and banter as the bonus ingredient that also lightens up things and works as a nice counterbalance to the more disciplined and classical side of their music.

Sun 2

Everything has its time, nothing is permanent… As February’s first Sunday dawned on Glasgow, we packed the last of our stuff we hadn’t sorted yet and mentally prepared for leaving Scotland.

But there were two concerts left yet for us to savour, and before those we noted with delight that our Danny Kyle Open Stage favorites Lapwyng, Nico G, Breanna Wilson & Sophie Joint and Malachy Arnold were among this year’s DKOS winners – congrats and best of future success to all of them!

It was our joy and privilege to be part of the BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of The Year final, an amazing experience and a stunning showcase of Scotland’s young talent. All finalists had already some merits under their belts so the level of musicianship was to be expected, but still…

No envy from us to the judges; it’s hard to figure out how to judge a totally mesmerizing singer like Josie Duncan against the dazzling musicality of accordionist Pàdruig Morrison. In the end, the whirlwind perfomance of piper/whistler/flautist Ali Levack, of Project Smok, received the honor, and deservedly so, as his performance showcased not only his total command of his arsenal of instruments but also his boundless energy that sometimes reminded me of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson in his prime.

The final blast of our CC2020 came in RURA’s 10th anniversary celebration at the Old Fruitmarket. The packed hall gave a warm and well deserved reception to Cornwall’s Kitty McFarlane whose delicate and dreamlilke ocean-inspired music was fascinating and original, definitely something I will look into more closely. RURA brought on a dazzling menu of their greatest hits, performed with so many special guests I don’t even try to list them here, before a crowd going totally ape and giving the band their all (and loudly, as the bunch behind me kept screaming into my ears througout the show). It was more a celebration and the big bang marking the end of CC2020 than a regular gig and we staggered out dazed but not one bit confused over what had just taken place.

And then it was all over.

Will we return for 2021? At this time I doubt it – no matter how much we’d love to, coming over and staying this long and attending all these gigs was a pleasant but direct financial hit on our savings account, and as we had already done CC2019 as well, we may even benefit from a little break 😉

But these things are certain:

⁃ Glasgow is a GREAT city for hosting the festival

⁃ The CC organization and volunteers are AMAZING

⁃ We LOVE the fact that practically every show is either totally or almost sold out and there are people of all ages enjoying and keeping alive the entire wonderful musical heritage of the Celtic countries and regions – and others as well!

Thank you, tapadh leibh and slàinte to all you beautiful musicians and wonderful people who keep CC going!!!

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