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A visit with ‘family’ at Celtic Connections

There’s no indication the organisers of the first Celtic Connections, which took place in Glasgow 25 years ago, spared a thought for traditional music lovers like me who enjoy popping over from the continent for three or four days to attend what sometimes feels like an extended family reunion. The festival’s official explanation, that the dates were chosen to bring “much needed entertainment and economic cheer to the city during the darkest part of the year,” has charm from our perspective, too.

It’s to be hoped that the city’s shops, bars and restaurants get a boost from the presence of the festival crowd, and they do seem to be always full. But who other than the dedicated music lover would get excited about spending time in Scotland in January? Fortunately for us, the tourism industry does not seem to have heard of Celtic Connections. If it had, airfare would not be less than a quarter of the price in August, when the festival calendar is brimming with events and, truth be told, the weather can be equally dismal.

There’s no excuse not to take a trip then, even with the somewhat daunting challenge of choosing between 300 music events in 18 days. Where else in the world do you find that – in the dead of winter? So much to consider. Which shows to see, which workshops to attend, which walking tours to take and where to stay with an eye to getting back there after a late night at the Festival Club when the buses have stopped running and cab fare is already spent?

Would it be better to see a special performance for Burns Night, take in the super-show at the Hydro or give a less-known artist a try? Other than for the super critical there are no really bad choices here, though as at any other music performance the venue or the seating, as well as the enthusiasm of the audience, can make a big difference in the feeling created.

With popular gigs often overlapping, it might be useful to be able to be in more than one place at a time, but there are ways to get around it. Worth pondering is that apart from the big concerts, smaller theme events are on most of the day, and on the Danny Kyle open stage – with some amount of luck – tomorrow’s top talent might be lurking. How many would think of dropping in at the festival studios of Celtic Music Radio, tucked away in a remote upstairs corner of the Royal Concert Hall, but an hour watching a live interview and listening to a selection of interesting songs, while clapping loud enough to simulate an entire audience, passes quickly.

At a benefit or tribute concert – of which Celtic Connections has an ample share – there is a good chance to see big-name artists outside a solo performance. After scrolling through the 2018 festival website, I decided to try two benefits, the Maid of the Loch –The Heart of Loch Lomond show presented by Siobhan Miller and Phil Cunningham – and the concert to support Dick Gaughan, who has recently been ill and unable to work. Both proved excellent choices for different reasons.

The nostalgia trip ‘doon the watter’ to benefit the restoration of the 1953 Clyde-built steamer was a draw for me not only because of ancestral ties to the Loch Lomond area but also because it was The Corries’ unrivalled recording of the song of the same name that touched off my own personal folk revival. In any case, the easy listening evening on the Maid was a smooth way to glide into three fully packed days of music, despite badly placed loudspeakers hampering the view from some seats.

With its nautically themed period pop songs that well predate the folk revival, the evening had a definite 1950s feel, and two icons from the early days of the Scottish revival, Arthur Johnstone and Jimmie McGregor, were on board to help recreate the atmosphere. The sheer energy of Findlay Napier, bursting on the scene midway through, seemed to pull it all together, though. It would not be hard to imagine him musically steering the maiden voyage when the pleasure boat is under steam once again. As of the end of January, the restoration effort still had £1 million left to collect.

The chance to catch Martin Simpson and Tony McManus back-to back and together is an opportunity not easily passed up, and their very enjoyable joint Celtic Connection concert this year would have been sold out if it hadn’t been one of the few events on a Monday evening. But the last third of the less than inspiring Strathclyde Suite in the Royal Concert Hall with its rows of school-auditorium style folding chairs is not the best place to soak up the sound of two guitarists who have inspired many people to take up the instrument. Arriving early for unmarked seating should have been an oxymoron.

But opportunity sometimes knocks twice. At the Dick Gaughan benefit, the second such event in a few months and my final Celtic Connection concert of 2018, everyone was rewarded in one way or another, including those not in the queue an hour ahead. Though cavernous and dark, the Old Fruitmarket exudes atmosphere, and with its cabaret style tables, a good spot is fairly easy to find. On this occasion, Martin Simpson was front and centre stage for much of the time, sovereignly holding it together until Dougie MacLean’s emotional closing.

If this show’s logistical arrangements were “all a bit last-minute in coming together,” as one reviewer remarked, it didn’t really matter. Despite the participation of many of the Celtic music world’s stars, which also included Karine Polwart, the Bevvy Sisters and the Wilsons, there was no star allure. The evening was clearly for Dick, who rewarded concert-goers – at my table alone, there were three nationalities – with a cameo appearance.

“We’re all in this together. As long as you’ve got good friends, you’ll be alright.” When, to wind the evening down, Dougie led the audience and friends on stage in singing his classic This Love Will Carry Me, there was scarcely a dry eye in the hall. Clapping or calls for an encore would have spoiled the atmosphere. We all filed quietly out, singing softly.

by Dede Williams