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Centenaries, Celtic Crossover and Spinning Tops at Celtic Connections in Glasgow

Some trad enthusiasts look sceptically at Celtic Connections: too big, too commercial and not Celtic enough are complaints sometimes heard. Those with a folk club nearby, regular sessions in the local pub or a steady stream of gigs on the home circuit may be prone to this perspective. But to get the picture right, there’s more to reflect upon.

The 18-day January/February extravaganza has become a major drawing card for fans of Scottish and Celtic music as well as performers from many different countries, giving Glasgow a chance to bask in the (occasionally seen) winter sun and prove that Edinburgh doesn’t have a patent on folk culture.

That the music culture of the city on the Clyde can differ from that of its rival on the Forth was obvious again this year. In opera, they say, it’s not over till the fat lady sings. In Glasgow, it’s often not over till Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye or the John Maclean March rings lustily through the hall. At two of the three centenaries celebrated at Celtic Connections in 2019, those songs indeed did ring. A third struck a completely different chord.

The tribute put together by renowned fiddler Duncan Chisholm and the equally renowned Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, as part of a UK programme marking the end of the First World War, was a sobering way for me to wade into a five-day stream of music. Accompanied by Hamish Napier on piano and a three-piece string ensemble, in word and music the two trad stars called up images of the more than 200 sailors who died.

The atmosphere in the Royal Concert Hall was appropriately funereal – “like watching a passing cortege,” as one concert reviewer aptly described it. At the bar later, the general sentiment seemed to be that Julie’s voice was exquisite as always, but some would have liked to hear more from Duncan’s fiddle.

On Burns Night, no festival event celebrated the bard, but a second centenary show, The Rebellious Truth – created, compered and performed in by Borders singer and fiddler Lori Watson – honoured one of his revered descendants in the Carrying Stream of Scottish music. Hamish Henderson’s 100th birthday comes around on 11th November. Playing to a packed Mitchell Theatre, Henderson’s latter-day heirs including Steve Byrne and Fiona Hunter of Malinky, Mischa Macpherson, Scott Gardiner and Findlay Napier, paid vocal and instrumental homage to the song collector, songwriter, poet and political activist.

Lending the evening a personal note, many of the cast that also included Louis Abbott, Innes Watson, Heather Downie, Alistair Paterson and John Mulhearn chose to perform titles that meant something to them personally. Two sang in languages they shared with Henderson. Steve’s contribution – in German – Streitlied Zwischen Leben Und Tod – was the template for Hamish’s Flytin O Life And Daith, and Mischa performed several songs in Gaelic. Fitting, as the evening celebrated this song’s author, Findlay led the crowd in Freedom Come All Ye.

Another Scottish folk revival icon, who also cultivated its democratic roots, Morris Blythman, would be 100 years old this year. Bairns Of Blythman, a musical celebration of his life and work, was put together and driven by Celtic Music Radio host and multi-instrumentalist Gavin Paterson with Alistair MacDonald.

The cast at the Sunday evening Tron Theatre show comprised separate generations of Blythman’s “bairns”, those who had known him well - among them Jimmie McGregor and Jimmy Ross in addition to Alistair – and those influenced by his work, including Arthur Johnstone, Gavin and Stephen Wright. Marion Blythman, Morris’s widow, spoke briefly. Armed with only songbooks and their elders’ memories, the two youngest Blythman heir(esses), Iona Fyfe and Maeve MacKinnon, seemed to enjoy belting out songs from the Polaris submarine protest movement like Ding Dong Dollar – and, of course, Freedom Come All Ye – as much as the “oldsters” and the audience.

With Tosta Banda, a culturally diverse group of award-winning performers from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Frisia, Galicia and the Basque country, swept through Glasgow. Any of the dozen or so musicians, singers and dancers – who all leveraged their native language, instrumental style or footwork – could have separately held an audience in thrall. Together, their energy electrified the Royal Concert Hall.

Readers of The Living Tradition heard about Welsh talent Gwilym Bowen-Rhys in Issue 127, and some may have seen or heard the fascinating Basque percussion instrument, the txalaparta – which somewhat resembles a giant xylophone and is played with thick cylindrical sticks. At Celtic Connections, a host of talented young performers sang and played “well-kent” or unusual instruments, at times circling seamlessly around a seated Phil Cunningham and his accordion also spotted at several places in the second week. Beyond the regular members, some of whom met in an Irish pub in their own peculiar cultural diaspora, Scottish stepdancer Sophie Stephenson tapped across the floorboards and a seemingly ‘jointless’ Basque dance duo swerved virtually through the air.

Monday is blues day at Celtic Connections. Or so one might call it, because it’s easy to feel down in the doldrums after four frenzied days and nights. The festival programme is thin, the session musicians are back at their day jobs, and the daytime ‘fringe’ has unraveled. Why hang around – unless a relative festival newcomer like America’s Rhiannon Giddens, with the Celtic Blues Orchestra, is on the bill?

The elegant and agile fiddle and banjo player from North Carolina, who studied opera and speaks and sings Gaelic, seemed to have her listeners wrapped around her slender fingers that evening as she weaved a tapestry of self-penned political songs, Appalachian and Celtic traditionals before – without much of a break – slipping into a jig.

It would be hard to say which act was received most frenetically during my visit to Celtic Connections this year, the spinning-top Tosta Banda or Rhiannon Giddens. Both received multiple standing ovations. On her second gig in three years at the festival, Rhiannon flattered the audience with a remark that seemed to come from the heart – performing in Glasgow has become like a visit with friends. “I’ll be back.”

Dede Williams