Highlights of Celtic Connections 2015

A fortnight ago saw us trek up to Glasgow for the first time in several years to sample some musical delights at Celtic Connections. This epic two-week festival sees concerts take place in multiple venues across the city every night, yet it remains little known to the wider music-loving public. Although its remit is broader these days (sometimes controversially, featuring artists like Tom Jones and Van Morrison) the core of the festival is all about promoting Celtic folk music as well as its close relations bluegrass, old-time and Americana. There’s usually a varied selection of my favourite artists on offer, and this year’s interesting gigs included Punch Brothers, Fish & Bird, Ruth Moody and of course the Transatlantic Sessions concerts which have become an institution, this year featuring Tim O’Brien, Patty Griffin and Dirk Powell among many others.

The top priority for our visit was the inaugural concert for the new “I’m With Her” trio project from Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still). I’ve been fans of all three women for many years and they’ve all been busy with successful solo careers recently, as well as being in demand for various collaborations and band projects, as the best musicians always are.

This was clearly one of the hot tickets of CCs and the Mitchell Theatre (a lovely 400-seater venue inside the glorious domed Mitchell Library) was packed with a crowd which included many other musical luminaries playing at the festival – Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien were among those spotted in the audience. And for good reason – this performance was really very special indeed, and showcased the vocal and instrumental talents of the three women beautifully. The set featured gorgeous arrangements of songs by some of their favourite songwriters including Jim Croce, John Hartford and Gillian Welch, as well as a sprinkling of original and traditional songs.Further I’m With Her gigs across England and Ireland are scheduled for April/May and tickets are already selling fast, so don’t delay if you want to experience a very special musical event – probably unlikely to be repeated any time soon, given the busy individual schedules of Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan. The full list of European dates can be found here:

Friday night’s outing (coincidentally also at the Mitchell Theatre) was a superb double bill with Pharis and Jason Romero from Canada opening the evening for my favourites Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. Pharis and Jason (a couple who run the Romero banjo building company from their homestead outside the tiny town of Horsefly, British Columbia!) delivered a great set highlighting their glorious harmony singing and the gorgeous tone of their guitars (and Jason’s banjo). Pharis is a talented songwriter and her songs paint evocative pictures of the lonely landscapes of the far West. They sound as if they could be traditional songs of the genre, which is always a compliment in my eyes.

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West finished off the night in style, and although I’d already seen them play three times in the previous week, I never tire of watching and listening to their soulful brand of bluegrassy, old-timey roots music. Delivering a varied set culled from their three albums to date (plus a couple of wonderful new songs, as yet untitled!) they gave their customary spine-tingling performance of spot-on brother duet harmonies and glorious picking on mandolin, guitar and clawhammer banjo. Cahalen has a quite unique voice, full of soul and edge, which is perfectly complemented by Eli’s gentler, warmer tones. These guys have honed their craft to as perfect a pitch as you can get with real live music, and their fan base in the UK is increasing all the time. They were joined on stage by roots star Tim O’Brien, multi-instrumentalist and producer of their latest CD, I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands. Although the Cahalen & Eli duo is an immensely satisfying live music experience, it was lovely to hear Tim’s sensitive and tasteful fiddle parts on Livin’ In America and Pocketful of Dust (played on the record by the estimable Brittany Haas and Ryan Drickey). Here’s a wee clip from the Sheffield gig we promoted the week before, as I haven’t managed to upload any of their Glasgow footage yet.

So, all in all a very special few days in Glasgow, and I haven’t even got round to mentioning our interesting (if chilly) experience of the BBC Alba TV taping at Cottiers Theatre, featuring Cahalen and Eli’s special performance with Kris Drever. Talking of the BBC, they did seem to be recording quite a few things, on both TV and audio, and there are some lovely sessions and gigs from the festival that you can watch or listen to – have a look at their Celtic Connections site here for some great clips! So long Celtic Connections, we’ll be back another year to brave the frost and snow, and bask in the the warmth of your musical glow.