Trad/roots: Nothing matches the variety and quality of Celtic Connections

One of the best music festivals anywhere, Celtic Connections is in full swing, albeit online, so we can at least enjoy a virtual visit to Glasgow to sample some the fabulous and hugely varied music on offer

Oban-born Donald Shaw, artistic director of Celtic Connections
Robert McMillen

I LONG to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow toon… Well, that's certainly true during the month of January when I like to take a trip to the city on the Clyde for the annual Celtic Connections festival, probably one of the best music festivals anywhere in the world.

It's a place where people are happy to talk to you and musicians and fans mix with the ease of a large if sometimes unruly family gathering.

To be fair, you might be stiven or stervin' wi the cauld going from gig to gig but there is nothing to match the variety and the quality of the music in this most musical of cities.

Celtic Connections is a musicians festival, curated as it is by Capercaillie's Donald Shaw who decided to run the festival for two years when he was appointed artistic director of Celtic Connections. That was in 2007 and he's still there.

This year, he has pointed out, is going to be different, it has to be said.

“Of course one of the hardest consequences of the Covid virus for musicians this year has been the loss of live audiences in venues, so like many festivals we have had to look to an alternative way of presenting the Celtic Connections experience,” said the Oban-born Shaw.

“In a world where so much is unknown, it is vitally important that as a sector, we do all we can to ensure the longevity of Scotland's culture. Sharing our music and our arts is a vital part of our human existence, it connects us as a nation both at home and abroad.

“We owe so much gratitude to our funding partners who have supported our plan to put together a festival that embraces and showcases Scotland's culture whilst supporting both the artists and the supply chain that keep this sector running.”

Needless to day, this isn't a one-man show and how could it be for a festival that adds over £5 millon to the economy of Glasgow and generates a boost of £1m in net expenditure to the rest of Scotland each year.

We in Ireland can only look on in awe at what Celtic Connections has done to the music scene across the Sea of Moyle and despite the devastation that Covid is wreaking on live entertainment, the 2021 festival which started last week is proving that a global pandemic can't kill people's desire to make and to consume music.

But something else that the month-long festival does is open doors (and minds) to all that is new and innovative and avant garde in traditional, world, or roots music (the nomenclature is up to you) as well as paying homage to the pure drop.

Even a cursory glance through the online programme will give you a view of the breathtaking range of musical expression harnesses. All the performances are online and there is a fee for watching (shock, horror that artists are to be paid for the work they do!!) but with an average of £7 per show, that's half of what you would normally pay – and you don't have to drink pints out of plastic cups and get a taxi home afterwards.

But it isn't just Scotland and Scottish artists, as Donald Shaw mentions, who benefit.

Irish artists have long been an integral part of Celtic Connections (the clue is in the title) but the festival has long expanded out of the Celtic World.

Tonight's 7.30 performance, for instance, proves just that, featuring as it does, the award-winning fiddle supergroup Blazin' Fiddles which draws the distinct flavour of music from their part of the Highlands and Islands; a deep-dyed traditionalist and an intrepid innovator within Galician folk music, percussionist, piper and singer Xabier Diaz; Gnoss is a young quartet made up of current and former students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; and Deirdre Graham a Glasgow-based Gaelic singer whose musical stylings reflect her home on the Isle of Skye.

But there is so much more happening so here are some of my highlights:

Our own Declan O'Rourke performs on line at 7.30pm on Monday January 25 as excitement builds towards the release of his forthcoming Paul Weller-produced album Arrivals, due on February 5 via eastwest records.

O'Rourke's last album Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine (featured on these pages), documented rare first-hand accounts from that devastating period of Irish history and garnered numerous awards.

On the same bill are James Grant, Zoë Bestel, and Siobhan Wilson.

One of the great things is that some Celtic Connections concerts will be available online for a week and this will give me the chance to catch up on one of my favourite Scottish bands, Breabach who have played many times in Belfast. In their 15-year career, they have played live at the Sydney Opera House, Central Park NY and the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn.

Also on the bill is composer Aidan O'Rourke and Mercury Music Prize-nominated and BBC Jazz Award winner harmonium and piano player Kit Downes. As those of you who read this column a fortnight ago know, Aidan has been writing an original tune every day for the past year or so, with Kit adding bold harmonisations.

The concert offers a chance to witness two of the world's finest musicians collaborating and exploring new music alongside Esther Swift, coupled with readings of James Robertson's spellbinding stories by Matthew & Iona Zajac.

Also taking part will be up-and-coming singer and harpist Rachel Newton who draws on poems and ballads that are hundreds of years old, working them into her contemporary compositional style to create a rich sound that is ambitious, original and unique.

The line-up is finished with Bassekou Kouyate, one of the true masters of the ngoni, an ancient traditional lute found throughout west Africa, and the Birmingham-based folk artist Katherine Priddy who, having recently emerged on to the scene with her long-awaited debut EP Wolf, has been turning heads and steadily gaining attention.

You can get the whole programme from

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