The 16th Celtic Connections adventure ended on Sunday and as is now customary, a host of familiar Shetland names, predominantly fiddlers, graced the various venues over the 18 days of the festival.
Young Maggie Adamson, having won a Danny Kyle open stage award last year, got her chance at one of the bigger events this time round. Accompanied by Brian Nicholson on guitar, they provided the support for Jerry Holland, and by all accounts (see separate review) Maggie made a big impact.
Other isles ambassadors included Catriona MacDonald (Blazin Fiddles), Chris Stout (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Jenna Reid (Deaf Shepherd) and accordionist Inge Thomson (Harem Scarem), while Erin Sandison took a bow on the open stage.
I arrived in Glasgow on Friday, and apparently the previous evening Fiddlers’ Bid had lifted the rafters as part of the Showcase Scotland line-up at the Old Fruitmarket. On the same menu were the highly talented youngsters of the quintet Bodega, including Ross Couper from Voe on fiddle.
And then, of course, there was Aly Bain, who with his doyen of the dobro sidekick Jerry Douglas were the musical directors of Transatlantic Sessions – Bringing it all Back Home concerts on Friday and Sunday. We’ll come to that later.
To get a really decent-sized helping of the festival requires you to spend about a fortnight in the city, which is sadly not possible. I’d have loved to have heard, among others, Rodney Crowell, Béla Fleck, Youssou N’Dour, La Bottine Souriante, Martha Wainwright, Michael Marra, The Broken Family Band, Jackie Leven, Mary Gauthier, Gurf Morlix and the Lost Brothers.
So three nights it was then, and on Friday I plumped for the ABC with Québécois quartet Le Vent du Nord (The North Wind), who made a great impression at last year’s Shetland Folk Festival, with support from talented piping duo Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson.
The French Canadians are a frantic bunch, throwing themselves into a series of hurricane force reels kept in time by the amplified foot-tapping of fiddler Olivier Demers.
The other band members – Nicolas Boulerice on piano, accordion and hurdy gurdy, Rejean Brunet on keyboards, concertina and bass and Simon Beaudry on acoustic guitar, were all vital to a fantastic Celtic and Gallic mix, the highlights of which were Vive L’Amour and Rosette.
On Saturday evening it was off to the Old Fruitmarket and support act Cherryholmes were just firing up as I managed to squeeze into an already-packed main hall.
Arguably the hottest new thing on the bluegrass scene, Cherryholmes are one family: father Jere, a sort of cross between Times feature writer Charlie Simpson and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top on bass; mom Sandy Lee (mandolin); daughters Cia Leigh (banjo) and Molly Kate (fiddle); and sons BJ (fiddle) and Skip (guitar).
Cia Leigh definitely catches the eye, both for her looks and her quality banjo playing, but collectively they are sensational.
Spotting a Burra man in the audience during the interval, I joked that Cherryholmes were almost as good as the Pottinger family. “If we wir a tenth as good as dem I wid be happy,” Geordie replied. Perhaps a little over-modest but I suppose he has a point.
It’s difficult to find words to describe Jerry Douglas. He’s the best dobro player in the world, drawled the American seated next to me, and that is probably no exaggeration.
I think Scotsman critic Barry Gordon put it better than most. “[Douglas] saw off the high-energy performance of banjo-strumming, left-handed fiddling, moonwalking, bearded, bluegrass playin’ Cherryholmes as if swatting away a mildly irritating fly,” he wrote on Monday.
Douglas has an excellent current backing band in Luke Bulla (fiddle), who also weighed in with a couple of solid vocal numbers, Guthrie Trapp (guitar), Todd Parks (bass) and Chad Melton (drums) Having proved his genius for almost an hour and a half, for an encore – he was gone for all of 10 seconds – Douglas treated us to the hauntingly beautiful Sir Aly B, written in tribute to you know who.
And that fittingly brings us to Sunday evening’s Transatlantic Sessions at the Royal Concert Hall, a repeat of Friday’s show with one or two extra musicians thrown in.
Compère Ian Anderson – he of the fine tunes on radio – introduced the 20 or so stars of the evening, and some of the finest North American, Scottish and Irish musicians, many in town for their own individual gigs, filed on to the stage.
Fiddler Bruce Molsky was the first to get a chance to show his class, and a vintage burst of Shove the Pig’s Foot Further into the Fire set the standard for what would follow.
US country folk star Kathy Mattea was next up, and fittingly offered a tribute to the great John Martyn, who died last week, with May You Never.
The irrepressible Phil Cunningham provided Frank McConnell’s Three Step, then it was the turn of Tim O’Brien with his novelty song about a Caribbean fruit seller.
Dirk Powell, perhaps better known as the leader of Balfa Toujours, sang about the influence of his grandfather, while Molsky and Manchester-born but Irish-influenced piper and flautist Michael McGoldrick shared a tune or three.
Nashville legend Nanci Griffith gave us the stirring It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go, the first two verses of which, on the subjects of Irish sectarianism and US racial prejudice, she said were hopefully irrelevant now.
I doubt if anybody would have expected a Jimi Hendrix song, but that is what they got after the break, with O’Brien taking the vocals and Douglas a stunning solo on Hey Joe. Hendrix was one helluva bluegrass man, they told us. Drop the “blue” and they may well be right.
Then it was the turn of the Scots girls, Julie Fowlis with the utterly fantastic Biodh An Deoch Seo ‘N Laimh Mo Ruin and Eddi Reader, not unexpectedly, revisiting her love affair with the Scots bard himself.
Reader told us the song was about the guy who taught Burns how to “drink and shag women”, a comment slightly out of kilter with the evening’s reverence.
“You get no half measures with Eddi,” Bain later explained, but I doubt if an apology was all that necessary. A few of the well-dressed elderly folk may have tut-tutted under their breath, but by and large nobody seemed bothered.
Possibly the highlight of the entire evening came when Dan Tyminski, the singing voice of George Clooney in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? delivered his stunning Man of Constant Sorrow.
Bain took the lead for a couple of reels, including the Shetland tune Sleep Sound in the Morning. Then it was encore time. First, a rousing version of Randy Newman’s Sail Away. Then, finally – what else? – Bonaparte’s Retreat, with the lead alternating between Bain, McGoldrick, Cunningham, Molsky, Douglas – and the unsung, but sublime guitar picking of Russ Barenberg.
The concert can be seen again on BBC television on Sunday 15th February. I’d recommend you put it in your diaries now.