Celtic Connections, a really absorbing Glasgow festival, is over for another year. But Andrew Curry is still feeding on recent memory. For his second look at the 2023 event, he offers his thoughts on Transatlantic Sessions ...
The Transatlantic Sessions crew played two shows at the end of Celtic Connections before going on the road for a week. This is a big show that commands big audiences: both their Celtic Connections performances were sold out, and the other venues give a sense of their drawing power: the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, the Sage by the Tyne, the Buxton Opera House, and the Royal Festival Hall (where Eric Clapton joined them for a couple of numbers).
The format of the show is much as it has been since the television show’s brandname and musicians first migrated to the concert hall almost 20 years ago. Under the musical direction of the American dobro player Jerry Douglas and the Scots fiddler Aly Bain, a group of outstanding Celtic and North American musicians are a kind of house band that mixes songs from a range of guests with material of their own, some traditional, some not.
The guests this year were an eclectic mix. Martha Wainwright, scion of one of the great families of North American folk music, the American blues and nu-folk singer Amythyst Kiah, the one time Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí, and Karen Matheson, who has been associated with Transatlantic Sessions since it began.
Behind them, playing with Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain, was the house band. Mike McGoldrick (flute), John McCusker (fiddle), Phil Anderson (accordion), John Mackintosh (drums), and Daniel Kimbro on bass. And sitting in, with a couple of guest spots of their own, were the young American bluegrass players Allison de Groote on banjo and Tatiana Hargreaves on fiddle.
One of the secrets of Transatlantic Sessions’ longevity is that these are all top notch musicians. When they go into a set of reels, for example, with Aly Bain or Mike McGoldrick leading, they really do swing. Or when Jerry Douglas plays his cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, it’s easy to see why he’s usually described as being the best in the world at what he does.
Another is that the rotating selection of guest slots and pieces from the house band means that there’s always something going on. These are long shows. We saw the first one, and they perhaps had a little tightening up to do, but it was still the best part of three hours of music.
And another is that the show gets an aura from the television series, which stretched across six series between 1995 and 2013. The format of the series was a brilliant concept. Gather some top notch transatlantic folk and country musicians in a big house in Scotland, have them rehearse with the house band for a week, and then record three hours of performance and package it into six 30-minute programmes.
Looking back, anyone who was anyone turned up to play, everyone from Emmy-Lou Harris and James Taylor to Mary Black and Davy Spillane to John Martyn and Julie Fowlis. And all of the concert hall house band had played in the television Sessions as well.
So although these days you don’t really need to mention that Martha Wainwright is a McGarrigle daughter, because she’s famous enough in her own right, it matters because the McGarrigles were there in Series 1, and Wainwright has agreed to sing for the first time Goin’ Back To Harlan, which they sang then—she had a cheat sheet of the words to hand, just in case, although she didn’t need it. It’s like turning up with a fragment of the True Cross. (She sang a couple of her own songs in the second half).
Similarly, Liam Ó Maonlaí is introduced as having appeared in Series 4, and reprised his fine song Worry Not, which he sang on the programme. All the same, it would be possible to look across the stage and think that these are musicians who are aging gracefully together. Aly Bain is in 70s now, and Douglas in his 60s. Even McGoldrick, McCusker, and Doyle, who play in a trio together, are now in their 50s.
But there’s one more secret here as well, and that is that they are still listening to new music. Hence the presence of Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves in the house band, and showcasing a couple of their own songs - one a lovely composition called Wellington.
Similarly, the presence of Amythyst Kiah. She is a powerful singer with a strong stage presence, and her arrival early on in each half certainly created energy, at least (on the first night) when the band had got her songs in the right order. “That’s the next one,” she had to tell them as she stopped playing. Kiah’s perhaps best known for her involvement with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell on the Songs of her Native Daughters record, and her blues and folk influenced style worked well with the arrangements that the house band brought to her songs.
And, of course, you can’t go wrong if you can call on Karen Matheson. After a bleak series of songs (Kiah’s Wild Turkey, about her mother’s suicide, and Phil Cunningham’s All The Sadness There Is, for the victims of the Ukrainian war), Douglas conjured Matheson from the sofa at the back of the stage to perform a lively Gaelic song in which a young woman marries her sweetheart despite all of the things everyone else in the village is saying about him. Matheson’s performance of I Will Set My Ship In Order which she sang with Capercaillie, and which closed the first half, was a high point of the show.
It doesn’t always work that well. Liam Ó Maonlaí’s first two numbers, from the piano, were a jazzy version of a Tim Buckley song and something else in a similar vein, which the band could do nothing with. It was like having a stable full of racehorses and going out for a drive instead.
But these are musicians who are comfortable in their own skin. When Jerry Douglas laboured an intro to Matheson by going on about the number of MBEs and OBEs on the stage, Phil Anderson undercut it with a story about the Queen asking him at Balmoral about whether it was difficult to play the accordion:
I heard a voice that sounded like mine, from somewhere outside of my body, saying, “Why Ma’am, are you thinking of taking it up?”.
I had a fantasy of them playing some sets together at the back of the coach on the way south, and the driver having to ask them to keep the noise down. Because this is the real secret of Transatlantic Sessions. The stage show, like the television series, invites you to feel that you’ve just dropped by, and the musicians would have been playing all of this music anyway.
Here’s a Salut Live! Transatlantic Sessions 2023 playlist.