CHRIS BARTTER reports on the many hook-ups across musical and national boundaries which make the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow so unique
Celtic Connections has a tradition of ensemble concerts, with some working better than others, and this year Songs of Separation at the Mitchell Theatre was one of the best.
Created on the Isle of Eigg post-referendum by 10 English and Scottish women to explore the theme of separation, it was initially inspired by the independence discussions but this group of supremely talented musicians moved on to other issues too, particularly the refugee crisis.
The result was a mutually supportive exploration of separation — from each other, from the land, from family and from life itself.
Its keynote was the powerful ensemble piece Over the Border, which powerfully combines the Scots post-Flodden song Floo’ers o' the Forest, the English first world war song Flowers of Knaresboro’ Forest and the Scots pipe tune Blue Bonnets O’er the Border with a call to get “the gates and their borders all wede away.”
Celtic Connections has always marked the bard's birthday by staging an alternative Burns Night and this year's fascinating concert at the Old Fruitmarket drew together singers from the Punjab to Palestine via Syria and Glasgow’s own Roma community.
Syrian Maya Youssef, playing the zither-like kanun, stole the first half with Syrian Dreams, her own plea for peace in Syria, while British-Palestinian singer Reem Kelani memorably signed off her set.
“Long live Palestine! Long Live Scotland!” she cried, after delivering The Slave’s Lament which, driving right to the heart of colonial culpability, turned out to be the most appropriate song on this internationalist night.
With a blend of heavy metal meets reggae meets electronica, John Grant and his band made an excellent festival debut and kept a packed audience enthralled.
Kicking off with Geraldine, he kept the pressure up with his blend of blackness and humour, including a belting Disappointing.
Upcoming singer-songwriter Rachel Sermanni in support seemed a touch lost in the vastness of the Royal Concert Hall and perhaps a more intimate venue would suit her better at this stage of her career.
At the same venue, two acts at the peak of their powers showed how folk is developing. The Unthanks and Lau add layers of invention to the genre, with the former paring songs back to basics, whether traditional — Testament of Patience Kershaw or Died for Love — or contemporary — King Crimson’s Starless — and then add a string quartet, trumpet or their very own clog-dancing rhythms.
Lau use folk as a jumping-off point for compositions that build multiple layers of electronic and traditional instruments. They were also backed by a string quartet and, a nice touch, support vocals to the first two numbers from Rachel and Becky Unthank.
Most tracks came from their soon-to-be-released album The Bell that Never Rang. First Homecoming, and Ghosts showed what consummate musicians Lau are, while the title track formed the final hurrah to a hugely impressive concert.
Irish folk miscreants Lynched came to Tron theatre trailing good reviews and a significant fan base. They lived up the former but the latter got somewhat in the way of their music.
Radical and refusing easy solutions, numbers like Cold, Old Fire and Salonika warrant a listen. But the audience were more in the mood for the music hall of Daffodil Mulligan and while Lynched are capable of satisfying many demands their impact's diminished as a result.
In contrast, support Clype need to vary their repertoire and, while guest musician Jennifer Sturgeon gave them some depth, it wasn’t enough to inject sufficient variety to their set.