Celtic Connections 2020

Celtic Connections has become a Glaswegian – indeed Scottish – institution since its founding in 1994, as the first major music festival of the year.  If the festival’s initial focus was on Scottish folk and the traditional, Celtic Connections has expanded its remit over the years to take in musics from all over the globe, from Americana to African music to Tibetan throat singers – ergo the ‘Connections’. Though I wish they’d stop using the term World Music, one which is patronisingly antiquated in 2020.

If the festival has always consciously sought to locate Scotland’s place in international music, this is a process whose significance has subtly shifted over the years. This year’s festival, coincidentally taking place over the time of the UK’s departure from the EU, cannot help but be read in this context, especially given festival producer Donald Shaw’s outspoken concerns over its effects on the international pull of the festival. 

This impression was only strengthened by the very fact of the opening concert, a symphonic celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, the earliest written declaration of Scottish independence.

If independence is increasingly becoming the subtext of Scottish politics – a natural reaction to nationalism being the current subtext of British politics per se – Scotland is having to ask itself what kind of country it wishes to become, and many are focusing their attention on Nordic models.

This attention is a two way process, as I found out at the first gig I attended, Alasdair Roberts, who had been invited by the Norwegian folk group 

Völvur to collaborate with them. Roberts is unique amongst folk musicians in that he’s equally revered in the world of both folk and rock music. If hipster faux folk can be the most irritating genre around, no one since Bert Jansch has so successfully inhabited the Scottish folk idiom and manage to make it relevant to today, the rich loam of tradition providing him with a musical language and iconography to play with and claim as his own.

A song like False Flesh is a perfect example of his style, a telling of an almost Gothic tale of a medieval mystic, where he married a jaunty American-style folk tune to a plaintive chorus, ably interpreted by Völvur, who effortlessly adapted to Scottish folk, fleshing out but never overpowering Roberts with strings, clarinets, guitars, a double bass, electronics and percussion. 

While Roberts’ music was the main focus here, Völvur also drew on their own heritage, with violinist and leader of Völvur, Hans Kjorstad playing a local tune from his region in a time signature which may have been irregular but segued seamlessly into Roberts’ The Merry Wake.

The band also performed three takes on Norwegian folk, one about the sun rising, and one about it descending, which turned out to be much more minimalist and miserabilist than the Scottish variety. Though having said that, what could be darker than Burns’ Lord Ronald My Son, which also received an airing on the night before Burns’ Night? 

Three new songs, including one, Actors, written in collaboration with the band,  may not break any new ground in Roberts land, but then, Roberts’ music isn’t about breaking with, but reaffirming tradition. 

The gig was held at Platform, an arts centre in Easterhouse, on the city’s periphery with an enviable reputation for hosting cutting edge music, although their biggest hitter for the festival, renowned German keyboard player Irmin Schmidt, had to cancel due to ‘technical difficulties’.

Across town, The Blue Arrow is another intriguing venue, initially set up as a dedicated jazz venue, though it’s diversified of late, and hosted the festival’s late night folk sessions.

Few people can have done as much to join the dots between jazz and other genre as Jeff Parker, who emerged from Chicago’s burgeoning jazz scene to find fame as guitarist with post rock giants Tortoise. He took to the stage with his quartet, The New Breed, largely drawing on material from excellent new album Suite For Max Brown, although opening with an older jam, Executive Life, which conjures J Dillaesque fog of sound through spasmoid phat beat, with Parker riffing on guitar while the sax soared above it all.

They soon launched into the new album, dedicating the supremely funky Go Away to their “orange idiot of a president”. This was the liveliest the gig got, as the band settled into a set of soft keyboard washes accentuated by Parker’s guitar licks that was more evocative of Miles’s In a Silent Way era, though there were still odd hints of lounge keyboard for the Tortoise fans. 

If the playing sometimes threatened to get too smooth, at others it dared to be so ambient that you were just listening to circular breathing on the sax over the keyboard. I may have mentioned Miles Davis, but they closed with a sublime cover of another of their influences, John Coltrane, and his After the Rain

Jazz is, of course, undergoing a massive resurgence and finding a new audience amongst the young. Two of the most promising young Scottish musicians, Luca Manning and Fergus McCreadie also celebrated their album When the Sun Comes Out in the Blue Arrow, with the aid of saxophonist Laura MacDonald.  McCreadie is a very adept pianist who has recently graduated from the city’s Conservatoire, while Manning is studying jazz at Guildhall, though is burgeoning success may be interfering with his studies. At first glance, they appear to be revisiting the classic jazz songbook, with Manning – a brilliant raconteur whose effortless rapport with McCreadie can threaten to topple over into a comedy double act – taking great pains to place each song in its historical context.

In a cover of Betty Carter’s Who What How Where When, he delivers a precisely accented summing up of yearning for love, or in the album’s title track a bluesy take on the same with some boogie woogie runs from McCreadie. Both of these songs are written from a female perspective, which Manning retains, allowing him to segue into his own material dealing with same sex love seamlessly and subtly queer the canon, which may have gone above some of the (largely whitehaired) heads of the audience. 

McCreadie also integrates his interest in Scottish folk into the proceedings, as in his haunting balled Stones of Brodgar. While they ended on a slightly cheesy cover of Loch Lomond, Celtic Connections is the perfect place at which to do so, and they invited the audience to join them in song, which they gladly did, if they couldn’t quite hit the notes like Manning could.

Words by Brian Beadie

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