Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival has long pushed the boundaries of what a Scottish folk music festival can be, in recent years becoming a truly worldwide meeting-together of performing arts from cultures ranging from the ancient to the modern-day, with little ruled out-of-bounds.
Something of this eclecticism can be found on the one evening under the roof of the Royal Concert Hall, where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performs alongside guests Maeve Gilchrist, Paul Buchanan, Lau and Aoife O’Donovan. Though not billed as a ‘gala evening’, it takes on a feel of celebration, when the SCO’s distinguished guest conductor Eric Jacobsen reminds us it was almost fifty years ago to the day, that the Orchestra performed its premier concert. It’s fitting, therefore, that tonight echoes its role as a chief galvaniser of Scottish music, undertaken since 1974 as one of Scotland’s five National Performing Companies.
To kick-off, Jacobsen leads the SCO through Felix Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave from The Hebrides, teasing out the full melodic sweetness of the well-known piece.
Jacobsen then introduces Maeve Gilchrist, who really is such a phenomenal harp player, mesmerising with the dreamiest floating passages employing rippling harmonics, then into surging, emphatic swells. From Edinburgh and now based in Brooklyn, she has acquired a reputation for her innovative and improvisational approach, and her impressive technique was well-showcased tonight.
The Scottish folk trio Lau need no introduction to Celtic Connections audiences: Kris Drever on guitar and lead voice, Martin Green with accordion and Aidan O’Rourke on fiddle offer a totally contemporary take on the acoustic folk tradition and join Aoife O’Donovan for a strong, considered performance, and there it is – once again we’re witnessing the classic and unique Celtic Connections coming-together of fantastic international players.
A Grammy award-winner and busy international recording and touring star, O’Donovan’s entry brings about an infectious energy, characterised not least by her colourful dress, as she performs songs from her upcoming work America, Come about the women’s suffrage movement on the centenary of the passing of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Her voice has a resonant ring to it and the songs are reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s later more congregational-sounding work, taking interesting and exploratory turns, but with highly singable choruses, appropriately joined tonight by the SCO’s choir, alongside her own band.
Merely by walking onto the stage, Paul Buchanan elicits a standing ovation. Typically self-effacing, he asks in response to this adoring tsunami, ‘But what if it’s not any good…?’ It’s over forty years since he sang on The Blue Nile’s peerless debut album A Walk Across The Rooftops – a highly atmospheric, electronic pop monument without gravity – and his sclerotic work-rate (five albums in this time) seems to have cemented rather than diminished this modest man’s cachet, especially here as local boy. A one-man Edward Hopper painting, with a voice as fragile as porcelain, Buchanan’s exquisite solo album, the piano-and-voice Mid Air, is now twelve years old, but even now his near-whispered rendition of the title track falls upon us like confetti blown by the gentlest wind. Notably, accompanying him on piano was Donald Shaw, Celtic Connections’ long-standing leading light, whose gentlest of touches provided the perfect foundation of – well, air – upon which floated Buchanan’s sighed, sweet sorrows: somehow, ‘mid-air’ says a lot about his ability to transport.
Warm and fulsome applause greets Blue Nile track Let’s Go Out Tonight, but in the band’ Happiness – itself twenty-five years old – he’s found a masterful touch: along with the choir, it elevates the evening with its inflated, soaring chorus. With the entire cast of the evening re-united for a much-applauded encore, and another exquisite reading of Mid-Air, a truly full-throated re-run of Happiness makes for an anthemic, perfect end to the show. Only having rehearsed a few Buchanan songs, occasioning the repeat of two, as Shaw briefly explains, is ‘because Paul didn’t think you’d want more than three…’, to ‘Aww‘s from the audience, who clearly understood that says it all.
With grateful thanks to the Celtic Connections team for their assistance.