Celtic Connections, Various Venues, Glasgow
Monday 05 February 2007
It is difficult to imagine the post-Hogmanay hangover month of January without Celtic Connections, Glasgow's festival of traditional/ roots music. Launched 14 years ago, the festival has silenced doubting Scottish soothsayers by becoming one of the biggest events of its kind in Europe, with more than 1,000 artists and 300 events in 12 city venues.
From the outset, Celtic Connections was a gathering of loosely related musical clans, and this year's third and final week under the new artistic director Donald Shaw (from the Gaelic band Capercaillie) featured everyone from Rosanne Cash to Idlewild's Roddy Woomble, a joyous Asian-Scottish Burns Mela and the first Scottish showcase for artists from Peter Gabriel's Real World label.
In a programme studded with female American stars such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Cash unveiled Black Cadillac, a multi-media tribute to her father, Johnny. Closer to home, Woomble was ubiquitous, appearing in any number of guises while conducting his extraordinary author-musician collaboration, Ballads of The Book, in the Royal Concert Hall. The project, conceived by Woomble and the poet Edwin Morgan, had a group of leading Scottish writers, including Alasdair Gray and Louise Welsh, composing lyrics for the likes of Karine Polwart and James Yorkston. It didn't always work, but it was a fascinating experiment all the same.
The inaugural Burns Mela brought UK performers Michael McGoldrick and Michael Marra together with the Indian bansuri flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia, introducing Future Pilot AKA's Asian-dub versions of Burns songs sung by Capercaillie's ethereal Karen Matheson. Yet folk fundamentalists still moan about the all-inclusive packaging of genres under the Celtic banner - and the connections are often tenuous - but the global reach of Real World fits the festival's ethos perfectly. And it was even more fitting that the concert was dedicated to Martyn Bennett, the virtuoso Scottish musician and Real World artist who died from cancer in 2005.
In the fairy light-draped Old Fruitmarket - the setting for many Bennett concerts - Daby Touré, the charismatic Mauritanian singer-songwriter, opened, and promptly stole, the show. Playing songs from his forthcoming Stereo Spirit album, he skated gracefully between beguiling ballads, tingling Senegalese dance groves, high-stepping reggae and a kind of sprinting ska. Touré's voice has a sweet, high-register purity and his guitar-work is textured and pointed, rippling across gentle laments, hard chopping rhythms and body-slapping percussion. With his moving and uplifting set, Touré already has the makings of a world music star. "It's like a wee Womad," beamed Shaw. Well, maybe not yet - but it was an impressive start.
A storming set from Cuillin Music, a collection of Martyn Bennett's original collaborators, was a stirring reminder of his legacy as the foremost new traditionalist. Reprising his pungent, juddering electro-reels, the band's fiddles and bagpipes blended into a wash of samples from the keyboard of Bennett's sister Katrina - a stark reminder of his ability to seamlessly meld traditional and contemporary styles.
By contrast, Severa Nazarkhan, the petite 25-year- old Uzbekistan singer, seemed uneasily poised between ancient Uzbek music and coldly technological pop. The girl from Tashkent has a glorious, glacial voice, but the material is mediocre and even her dazzling presence couldn't dispel the momentary thoughts of Eurovision pop from my mind.
Finally, US alt-blues guitarist Skip "Little Axe" McDonald, accompanied by Keith LeBlanc and Doug Wimbish from The Sugarhill Gang, swayed into a set mixed by veteran producer Adrian Sherwood. McDonald's effects-laden swamp blues lends itself to Sherwood's loping ,dub- heavy production, and Bernard (Tackhead) Fowler's vocals conjured a sonic collage echoing with chain-gang chants and gospel. McDonald tends to the self-indulgent, stretching his woozy guitar meanderings to the limit, but this was a mighty ensemble in one of the most emotive nights of a festival confidently stepping into a new era.
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