Any festival that reaches its 20th anniversary has something going for it and a few spring to mind that hit that landmark during 2013. On the international scene Sonar goes from strength to strength, Barcelona’s electronic music festival fills my mind with some of my most treasured memories, and last year they set out on a global expansion for the first time with more destinations added this year. In Scotland the festival in its 20th year that will get the most media attention will be T in the Park, but unassumingly there has been a remarkable story steadily growing to what is now a globally unique amazing festival. Last weekend saw Celtic Connections conclude for the 20th time, and with it ~3weeks weeks of diverse music came to a close. I say unassuming as it still feels so intimate but with more than 100,000 ticket sales (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21314849) it is clearly doing well for itself.
I imagine the initial design of Celtic Connections was to pull together the ‘traditional’ music of Scotland (comfortably spanning from acoustic folk music to pulsating dance rhythms led by whistles and pipes) with similar traditions from our Celtic neighbours in Ireland, Wales, England, France, Spain, Canada and the USA. However it has evolved now into a truly worldwide affair – Celtic may be part of our Scottish tradition but the festival now reaches out to all genres and music of any ethnicity. If Gilles Peterson (don of the ‘Worldwide’ music scene) was secretly on the board of artistic directors I wouldn’t be surprised. It is in fact Donald Shaw (https://twitter.com/ShawDonald) who is the Artistic Director and I would say he’s doing a great job (especially when combined with the fact that he seems to miraculously appear either in the crowd or on stage performing at every gig)!
In a sense I think that the name of the festival doesn’t do it justice. People can be a bit wary of ‘traditional’ music, in my opinion it often doesn’t come across too well when recorded. However going to see the music live creates an entirely different experience. I personally feel the same for many genres – jazz and blues to name a couple (both of which get a representation during the festival).
My experience of the 2013 event was more limited than I’d have liked but I did still manage to event all 3 weekends. The first was a spontaneous decision to go and see Lucas Santtana (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkEy3wUQd10) support Mulatu Astatke (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10_UQhm-Yv0) in the Fruitmarket but on arrival we discovered that Lucas had cancelled due to illness (nothing serious thankfully and I believe he hopes to tour again this summer). Instead of South American music we got Glasgow Southside instead – RM Hubbert – an artist that had somehow managed to pass under my radar. Solo on stage he played the guitar with incredible & captivating style and saved his voice for some interesting chat between songs and a couple of superb folk numbers within his set (such as this one written alongside Aidan Moffat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnPCAIU6Qe8). He was followed by Mulatu Astatke who had a band of the most amazing talent. Any individual element could stand on its own as was demonstrated by the drum solo towards the end of the set where it sounded like a drum machine was blasting out drum and bass with intricate percussion over the top of it. Much like the Michael McGoldrick gig that we attended in the same venue the following Saturday, I don’t feel capable of expressing how a stage full of musicians can find such harmony in real driving rhythms.
The Michael McGoldrick gig was preceded by a full day of Celtic Connections. It is usually a pure music affair but this year they hosted a Q&A with Tony Benn, compared by the excellent Mark Thomas. Some socialist folk songs and a song for peace did ensure that the musical element of the festival was served. My comment below and this fine letter to Tony Benn by Cath Ferguson http://wingsland.podgamer.com/a-letter-to-tony-benn/ give more detail on this one-off event. After this (and some lunch) I went to the Danny Kyle open session – a free late afternoon / early evening event with more great music on offer. The last tune that we heard there was a cover of a McGoldrick song which was fitting, not only because we would be seeing him live later but because the great Manchester flutist embodies the festival for me as he seems to appear on stage to accompany others almost every night of the festival.
My first memory of Celtic Connections was going to the Fruitmarket for my brother’s 18th with the Darling family, all the way back in 1995. Since then we’ve kept this up as an annual family tradition and this year our collective night out was on the Saturday night for Roddy Hart & the Lonesome Fire in the ABC. Vocally I thought he sounded like Mike Scott (high praise) and the band were all excellent, a fitting finale to this year’s festival for me.
If you’ve never tried it before, make sure you get along to the 21st year of the festival. Pick a day, any day, and genius is guaranteed.
Edit: Just realised that I missed a night from this year – a superb night in the Arches for Beat Bothy, of which Batida were the highlight! African dance beats with some of the finest dancing I’ve ever seen! https://soundcloud.com/soundway-records/batida-alegria-12-extended