Alex Monaghan sampled Glasgow's giant January festival - purely for medicinal purposes.
Like most people, I don't live in Glasgow and I can't afford to take 3 weeks off in January. But I didn't want to miss Celtic Connections this year. So, with the aid of a calendar and a pin, I opted for a few days around the middle weekend: Paddy Keenan, Alasdair Fraser, Taraf de Haidouks, Simon Thoumire, Kepa Junkera and a few others. The problem is, look at what I missed: Fiddlers' Bid, Sharon Shannon, Liz Carroll, Treacherous Orchestra, Jerry Douglas, Chilli Pipers, Gerry "Banjo" O'Connor, Daimh, Anxo Lorenzo, Richard Wood (a rare appearance), Alison Brown, and even Mike McGoldrick's wonderful new Future Trad Collective! Thankfully I managed to pick up most of these artists on CD at the Celtic Connections music stall, but still - it's not the same.
There's been a change of emphasis at Celtic Connections in recent years, and it's especially clear in 2011. Much of the home-grown talent, the big names from the Celtic Fringe, has already graced Glasgow's winter festival. This year in particular, the programme contained new line-ups, some of them with familiar faces, and many double bills of unexpected connections. My interests, as you can tell from the list above, are mainly instrumental and broadly traditional, but nowadays this is only the tip of the iceberg at Celtic Connections.
For instance, Taraf de Haidouks - a quite traditional gypsy band from Romania, great musicians and powerful vocals - were paired with Mama Rosin. Never heard of them, but it turns out they are a Cajun band - except they are from Switzerland, they have a full drum kit behind most numbers, and they actually sing in tune. Doesn't sound like Cajun music to me, but boy are they hot! Two young lads with guitars, banjo and melodeon, both with good voices, and they cover everything from Jolie Blonde to Bon Temps Rouler, from blues to bayou to Zydeco and back again. A three-piece with the drummer, the range of sounds from Mama Rosin is impressive: full-on rockabilly, traditional Cajun accordion, through to Clifton Chenier and the bad boys. Triangle, tin vest, they've got the lot. This act was a truly unexpected delight, so if Mama Rosin are in your area, check them out. Honestly, it was quite difficult to work up enthusiasm for the world-famous eleven-man orchestra that is Taraf de Haidouks after being blown away by this trio from the Geneva bayous.
Other double-acts which I didn't get to see included Spiers & Boden - quintessentially English tunes and vocal harmonies - with the brash bluesy boys from Orkney Saltfishforty; the Scottish big band sound of The Unusual Suspects paired with Nova Scotian nouveau-vaudeville from Old Man Luedecke; and the very un-Celtic Blind Boys of Alabama with R&B starlet betty LaVette. These juxtapositions might not appeal to everybody, but there's no denying that Celtic Connections has all the ingredients of a great festival.
One double bill I did catch was Alasdair Fraser and the Galician session collective Banda de las Crechas. Fraser and Haas were world class as ever, the fiddle and cello combination evoking moods from 18th-century drawing rooms to 21st-century dance hall. Alasdair is still creating some great new tunes - McLachlan's Strathspey and Giga de Tenerife were outstanding examples, played with the fire and grace with which he and Ms Haas are rightly associated. Natalie was joined by her sister Brittany Haas for a couple of numbers, and Alasdair invited young Michigan stepdancer Nic Gareiss up for a few steps: now there's a man who puts the soft shoe shuffle on a whole new footing. Check out his online videos.
Fraser's smooth sweet fiddling played turn-about with gritty driving dance tunes, fiddle and cello vying for the top line. Apart from an incident when the Haas sisters had to take him down a peg, Alasdair was in spectacular form throughout. The cello has really come into its own with Natalie's accompaniment and melody leads: adding all the depth and power you could wish for, she still manages to make her music sparkle. Even on her brief solo air, played in octaves with clever drones on the back strings, there's an irrepressible touch of brio. When she grabs the melody, Natalie's dexterity and control are prodigious on big old jigs and reels. With an album due out later in the year, this duo is still at the top of the tree, and shaking hard.
And what of Banda de las Crechas? Turns out Casa Crechas is a bar in Santiago de Compostella, where a lot of musicians hang out on a Sunday, and twelve of them came over to recreate a Galician session in Glasgow. It worked pretty well, except for the fag breaks and the endless chatting between tunes which always bugs me at other people's sessions. They didn't do that on stage, of course: the muneiras and alboradas flowed freely from pipes, fiddles, accordion and guitars, with a few Gallego songs thrown in. A neat idea, and one it would be nice to export: maybe your local session can get a tour of Spain organised.
Two more unique concerts came my way in these few days at Celtic Connections. The first was the reunion of early 90s fusion pioneers Simon Thoumire and Ian Carr. Fusion isn't a word I often use, but these two took Scottish music by the throat and welded it permanently to jazz and weirdness. The English concertina becomes a thing of beauty and power in Simon's hands, as he twists and turns between traditional and improvisational, while Carr's eclectic guitar matches him quirk for quirk. Simon and Ian have been back together for a couple of years, but this was my first chance to hear them since their fabulous Hootz! days - they've mellowed, got a touch of early arthritis perhaps, but the music is as magical and amusing as aver. Their stage presence is something else, polished to a brilliant shine. Theirs is another forthcoming album I'm now impatient to hear.
Paddy Keenan, of course, is a man of mystery, a legend, a law unto himself. In his trademark hat, with pipes and whistles at his fingertips, he graced the tiny Tron Theatre for a future TV show - so watch out for that when it appears. The cameras also caught Fred Morrison and the multi-talented Matheu Watson, lovely fluter Nuala Kennedy, and of course Tommy O'Sullivan whose guitar and vocals have shared the stage with Paddy for several years now. I can't remember the tunes Paddy played - his trancelike state affected me, as his fingers moved with lazy ease over chanter and regulators, teasing out classics from his Bothy Band days, treasures learnt from great pipers now lost to us, and the occasional newer piece of his own. Here was a man in total command of his instrument, in tune with the tradition at least, and encapsulating the heritage of Irish piping as few people can nowadays.
So there you have it. My few days at Celtic Connections were filled with great music and many pleasant surprises. It's not all about sound, either. To see the main stage filled with the young talent of the National Youth Pipe Band, the salt-strewn streets of Glasgow crammed with colourful costumes, the black silk and shiny rhinestones of Simon Thoumire's shirt (not to mention his chrome-tipped winkle-pickers), and the hundreds of oddly-clad people who ventured out on a winter's night to dance to Romanian gypsy music or Scottish fiddles: that's a festival experience, and one I hope to repeat next year at Celtic Connections 2012.
Photo Credits: (1) Celtic Connections logo, (2) Mama Rosin, (3) Banda das Crechas (from website); (4) Paddy Keenan (by Tony Kearns, from 'Music & Light - Irish Traditional Music Photography' (www.musicandlight.ie).