Songs for the bleak midwinter

Glasgow in January? Indeed - the city's three-week long festival promises to be hot stuff
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The Independent Culture

With Hogmanay behind us, you might think that Scotland's profile as a January tourist destination would disappear off the radar. As regards its largest conurbation, however, you'd be wrong. "Thanks to Celtic Connections, we now get hundreds of people taking holidays in Glasgow in the dead of winter," says Colin Hynd, the director of the city's three-week music festival, which opens next week. "Visitors from the rest of the UK and abroad are now our main growth audience."

Celtic Connections has, since its launch in 1994, grown into one of the world's biggest events of its kind, with a total attendance of 100,000 last year. An economic impact survey in 2001 concluded that the festival, whose headliners this year include Bob Geldof, Joan Baez, Shane MacGowan and Mariza, generates £3m a year in extra income for Glasgow.

Th winter timing has, in fact, been a key factor in its success. "My original brief was simply to get an audience into this building during what had been our downtime: previously, we'd only been open for six nights in January," says Hynd, who is based at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. "But when we launch-ed Celtic Connections 10 years ago, virtually everyone in the media predicted we'd fall flat on our face: nobody went out in January, they said; nobody had any money after Christmas; our programme was too big; we were the wrong venue; the whole thing was way too ambitious."

That first festival pulled in 33,000 people. "We've proved the opposite of what our critics thought," Hynd says. "Yes, January is a bleak, dark time, but for that very reason people want to go out and enjoy themselves. They want to start the year off with a bang. And the other advantage is that because there is so little else going on, we can pretty much take our pick of the artists we want."

As a result, Celtic Connections has a reputation for quality programming as well as broad selection criteria. The festival sprawls across 11 venues, from the 180-seat Piping Centre for traditional singers and duos, to 3,000-capacity arenas for the likes of Geldof and MacGowan. Hynd is able to pick artists from across the folk/roots spectrum and beyond, and 2004's line-up takes in acts from Brittany, Spain, Canada, Portugal, Italy, America and the Basque country, as well as the British Isles.

Top traditional names such as Altan, Kate Rusby and Danu feature alongside rock and pop notables such as Lloyd Cole and Bernard Butler, the latter making a rare duo appearance with the guitar icon Bert Jansch. The veteran singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan premieres his first guitar concerto, while the cellist Wendy Weatherby unveils a suite inspired by the classic Scottish novel Sunset Song.

"We're not a folk festival," Hynd says, "but traditional music remains at the heart of what we do. Beyond that, our aim is to stay fresh and adventurous, and to bring the best musicians to Glasgow."

Celtic Connections, various Glasgow venues (0141-353 8000; 14 Jan-1 Feb