St Andrews in the Square isn’t the easiest venue in the whole world to find, as I found out on Sunday, 20th 2013 when I went looking for it armed with a recalcitrant GPS, and a driver who refused to listen to directions.
When finally located, the soaring spire of the 18th Century Georgian style church through the icy wind and spitting snow was a more than welcome sight, and not just because of the promise of a nice hot bowl of Cullen Skink in the subterranean warmth of Café Source nestled underneath it.
St Andrews in the Square is the centerpiece of an elegant square tucked away off the High Street in the heart of Glasgow’s Merchant City. The former church has to be one of the most beautiful venues used at Celtic Connections.
Inside the airy building creamy plaster walls rise up towards a gleaming golden-angel-strung ceiling, hung with glittering gold chandeliers. The wooden floors and stones steps are gently grooved by hundreds of years of foot traffic and, of course, the acoustics are simply stunning. Outside the doorway, carved on the stone paving slabs of the vestibule are words inviting people to come along inside and sing.
What better place to showcase the pure, lilting voice of Glasgow singer Maeve Mackinnon who, accompanied by Angus Lyon, Innes Watson and Ross Martin, opened up for Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, threw back the winter cold at this temporary church of folk in fine style.
An expressive singer in towering high heels, whose slightly nervous demeanor was in sharp contrast with her poignantly masterful performance, Mackinnon covered a lot of musical ground during the show, drifting from original songs such as ‘Once Upon An Olive Branch’ to an a cappella rendition of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’, and then upping the ante with a dynamic almost trance-dance version of ‘Seinn O’. Lyon, Watson and Martin provided discreet and evocative backing for each song, gradually gathering energy throughout the show, and bringing it to a rollicking high energy finish as they accompanied Mackinnon on great selection of puirt a beul, and waulking songs.
“I was drawn to Gaelic songs before I really even understood them,” she told the crowd, light shining on her strikingly beautiful heterochromatic eyes. “I was drawn to the beauty of the imagery.”
A quick break to visit the bar next to the stage - a great addition to any church in my opinion - and then Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas took the stage. Much has already been written about the virtuosity of both of these amazing musicians, but it is only on stage that you really start on understand why, as writer Chris Mackenzie put it, Alasdair Fraser is ‘burdened with the baggage of adulation’, and why, when teamed with the chameleon cello of Natalie Haas, the music is so entrancingly glorious on the ears.
Fraser can tell a good story too, projecting a beguiling playfulness and generosity of spirit that charms without grating; that along with the obvious affectionate synergy between the two musicians raises their music up to the heavens, apropos to the church setting.
“The fiddle is dangerous,” he told the crowd. “It can take you into dark places, so you know that you are onto something good.”
In keeping with the theme of the connections between different music genres in Celtic Connections Festival, he and Haas opened with an exhilarating set comprised of different versions of the one tune – The Highlanders’ Farewell.
“Natalie and I are having a great time exploring the fiddle and the cello, looking back and looking forward and this medley is sort of an example of that,” he said, before playing the original Scottish version of the tune, followed by an Irish one, and finishing up with an American.
“You will hear the tune cross the Atlantic,” he went on, “And show up in the Appalachian Mountains, as an Old Timey fiddle tune called, guess what? Highlanders’ Farewell! And you will know when it crosses the Atlantic.”
Another highlight, both musically and comedically, was a tune that he wrote for First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond called The Referendum.
“We had a great night last night celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig - the Gaelic College on Skye,” he explained. “And it has been a very important, seminal place for me and my journey. I’ve been hosting a summer school up there for the last 26 years, and in that 26 years we have seen amazing changes in Scotland, and many other countries as well - people asking questions about playing in their own voice, and bringing their dialects back into the music. It has been an amazing time.”
“Alex Salmond is also aware of that,” he went on, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “Because he came on the fiddle course this summer in Skye, because he knows that it is the musicians that make the difference - it is the fiddlers. I thought that I couldn’t miss the opportunity so I wrote a tune and dedicated it him, and I called it The Referendum, and he said he liked it. I had a wee note on it, and it said ‘to be played optimistically’ which, of course, you could interpret anyway you like.”
Listening to Fraser and Haas play is to listen to two instruments and two musicians in perfect sync. Dubbed big fiddle and little fiddle by Fraser, the deep-voice of the cello overlaid by its sparkling singing little brother creates an intensely layered musical conversation, as Fraser and Haas swapped lead and back up, percussion and melody, and laughter and bonhomie back and forth, creating another wonderful night for traditional music lovers at Celtic Connections 2013.