Celtic Connections: young blood and lesser-spotted folk talent
March 09, 2023
For the fourth part in his superb series looking back at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Andrew Curry considers the important role played by performers whose names and music may be less familiar than the event's headliners ….Herkja: the name. can mean spiritual, domestic or gentle. It can be Icelandic for 'dragging oneself along' but probably relates to Herkja Drummond, the daughter of a 10th century Highland clan chieftain
There’s always a lot going on at Celtic Connections, and almost all of the concerts feature two artists, sometimes three. In the big venues, the support acts are well known. Session A9, for example, supported Phil Cunningham. But in the smaller halls, the people you see can be much less well-known.
I imagine that Celtic Connections has some kind of cross-subsidy from the money-spinners in the big venues to make this possible, but it was one of the real pleasures of the festival.
In this post, some quick snapshots of bands that were new to me.
Graham Mackenzie is a younger Scots violinist whose latest project, The Dawning, represents a bit of a departure.
His first record, Crossing Borders, was solo pieces and duets. The Dawning, being showcased at Celtic Connections, is a suite, with a whole band on stage. Jim Molyneux on piano and keyboards, James Lindsay of Staran on double bass, Innes Watson on guitar, Mike McGoldrick on flute, all supported on some numbers by a brass section of sax, trumpet and trombone.
Jim Molyneux had just flown in from playing with Russell Crowe at a garden party in Oz. Mackenzie is a fine violinist with range and tone, It’s a good record, with good arrangements, lots of variety, and lots of tunes.
Herkja are four young women from Shetland who make up a fairly traditional looking Scots band—fiddles, guitar, piano/accordion.
They looked a little over-awed as they stepped onto the stage on the New Auditorium at the Glasgow Royal Convert Halls, but settled quickly.
The vocal arrangements were gorgeous—including a lovely cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’, and they brought some energy to their more traditional tunes. They have an EP that you can hear on Spotify or buy on Bandcamp.
Brilliant #ccfest23 set from Herkja tonight! 👏👏👏— 🏴🇺🇦Dave_58🏴🇺🇦🍒🇪🇺 (@Davekidd_58) January 28, 2023
You could have heard a pin dropat at c01:00 this morning in the @drygate during their cover of Chris Isaacs’ Wicked Game. Absolutely stunning with an accordion, 2 fiddles & 4 beautiful voices.Blown away!@ccfest @Jenny_Sturgeon pic.twitter.com/3rX4ASwd99
Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones
The Gaelic singer Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones presented their recent record, Despite The Wind and the Rain, in the church designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It is something of a concept album, celebrating significant women in Scots history, with songs in both Gaelic and English. Walker plays keyboards, and Jones guitar and cittern. They were joined on stage by a string quartet that included Patsy Reid and Alice Allan, by the vocalist Emily Smith, and from time to time by Duncan Lyall, who played bass and occasional synths.
The overall effect was rich, and the songs reflect their subjects.
A theme such as this can get quite respectful, as you move from the warrior queen Sgàthach to the pioneering black artist and curator, Maud Sulter, via suffragettes, women scientists, and anti-slavery campaigners.
Aaron Jones lowered the tone with a rollicking song about Bessie Miller, a Stromness woman who persuaded Orkney fishermen that they would get gentler winds if they paid her to fart into their hands.
The record is on Spotify, or you can buy it on Bandcamp.
Also on the bill was the Uist singer Gillebride Macmillan, with songs from his new record of Gaelic songs, Sèim—The State of Calm, released during Celtic Connections.
Karen Matheson—still the pre-eminent singer of Gaelic songs—emerged briefly to sing one of the songs from the record, about the Iolaire tragedy in 1919.
Jason Wilson’s Ashara
Jason Wilson has been around for some time, popping up from Toronto to pursue his project of melding Scots folk music with reggae.
Ashara, which appeared at the Drygate Brewery, seems the most ambitious version so far of this project, not least because the Maytals guitarist Carl Harvey is in the line up.
But at least some of the songs in the set—in reggae-influenced versions—date from Wilson’s work in the 2010s with Dave Swarbrick shortly before Swarbrick’s death. (Colin Randall’s article on remembering Swarbrick is on FranceSalut.)
This was a big group on a the small Drygate stage: the core band was joined by a collection of Scots guests, including Ali Hutton, the accordionist John Somerville and the fiddle player Jack Smedley, as well as the singer Subrina ‘Ibrina’ Ward. There were some highlights here.
The Ballad of Jack McLaren sounded a bit like the Pogues might have done it, at least if the Pogues did reggae. When Ibrina came on she lit the place up, bringing an energy you wouldn’t have guessed at from her recordings.
The encore was a mash-up of Burns and Bob Marley and had the place on its feet. Ashara has a record out later in the spring.
A quick mention for The Langan Band, who bring a punk sensibility to their music and have earned a keen following. Their song ‘Leg of Lamb’, from their forthcoming record Plight O’Sheep, is the strangest folk song I expect to hear all year.
And ‘Aquaplane’, about driving through a torrential storm to get to the Cambridge Festival on time, had people dancing in the moshpit.
And here’s a selection in a playlist, with Dave Swarbrick standing in for Ashara on the Jason Wilson numbers.