Celtic Connections: the curtain comes down with Bonny Light Horseman and dreams of Elvis
March 18, 2023
Salut! Live is immensely grateful to Andrew Curry for his series of outstanding reports from the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. See all instalments by clicking that link. It has clearly been a tremendous event and Andrew has found some really exceptional examples of our music to enthuse him.
This is the last of his pieces. Thanks, Andrew and in honour of your valued efforts, I shall resist the usual temptation to disallow any reference to such ugly concoctions as 'nu-folk' ...
Bonny Light Horseman. From left to right, Eric Johnson, Anais Mitchell, and Josh
Kaufman. Photo: Bonny Light Horseman.
Bonny Light Horseman
I knew nothing of Bonny Light Horseman when I booked the tickets for their gig in St Luke’s on the last night of Celtic Connections.
Nothing, that is, except for the music on their two records, which my son had shared with me last year. I didn’t know that the three musicians who make up the band, Anais Mitchell, Eric Johnson, and Josh Kaufman, had started playing together when they were asked to play at a festival in Wisconsin in 2018. Or that they all had long pedigrees in American folk and folk-rock music. (Rolling Stone called them a "folk supergroup".)
Or even that the drummer and bass player who were on stage with them had been added for their second record.
I didn’t even realise their age—all three are in their 40s. From their sound, I’d expected them to be younger.
The first record is beguiling, a reworking of many of the classics of British folk music through a rich patina of Americana, as if The Band and Sandy Denny had got together and spawned a wild, self-taught, child. The name of the band is a clue to that—the song Bonny Light Horseman is a folk standard, which, slightly recursively, is also the first song on that first record, also called Bonny Light Horseman.
On stage you can see why the band works. Mitchell and Johnson do most of the singing, and their voices meld well. Hers is high, quite gentle, and entirely distinctive, his a stronger tenor. On many of the songs they play to this strength, with his voice coming in behind hers, on a chorus or for a new verse.
Kaufman doesn’t sing much, but he is a heavyweight guitar player. There were times when I thought I heard shades of Grateful Dead in some of his fills, and I discovered afterwards that he had played with the Dead’s Bob Weir.
As they play, they watch each carefully, picking out different musical lines, Mitchell on guitar, Johnson swapping between guitar and banjo, Kaufman bringing a whole armoury of guitars to the party. They can move from the quietest, most careful, sound to rocking out in a heartbeat. But the overwhelming impression is of songs that are stripped back to leave a gap for the listener.
Johnson seems to connect the other two musically—on stage he is in the middle, between them—and Mitchell brings the energy to the stage.
Filling a gap while Kaufman re-tuned his guitar, she mentioned bumping into the outstanding Scottish accordionist Phil Cunningham in the hotel, and rushing back to her room to play his Silly Wizard songs, which she had been brought up on. The other two looked at her completely blankly.
“Oh, well”, she said, “I know we all bring different things to this band”.
On the night, they played most of the songs on both of their records, starting with Exile and moving through the catchy California to an extended encore that included Bonny Light Horseman and a loud and long version of 10,000 Miles.
Martin Green of Lau came on with his accordion for the encore, even if he got a bit lost in the mix. The songs from the second record, Rolling Golden Holy, are self-written and more American, but they still sit squarely in the folk tradition.
The Celtic Connections gig was the first on a British tour that had already sold out. I’m not at all surprised.
On the night, the support act was Cat Clyde, playing solo, although she was just about to start a British tour with a band, promoting her third record.
She’s a young Canadian singer, probably most easily described as nu-folk, with more than a splash of the blues and also a bit of country. She has a big voice with a big range, which she uses to good effect in her songs.
Listening to her on the night, I realised that I’d love to hear her cover some of the songs on Elvis’s Sun Sessions. I realise this is eccentric. But she’d certainly bring something to them.