Festival firsts, full-sugar finds and Folkytown

​Continuing Celtic Connections’ tradition of billing great female singers on Monday nights – following Mariza’s towering performance last week – Rhiannon Giddens upped the ante yet again last night, flanked by conductor Greg Lawson’s hand-picked Celtic Blues Orchestra, with a show that earned her two encores – despite having already featured all her orchestrated material, so she had to repeat some - and three standing ovations. Most if not all of the capacity crowd – which including people standing and in the choir stalls – would surely have concurred with the euphoric gentleman who subsequently tweeted “The bar just got raised for best ever #ccfest event” – which, let’s face it, is no mean feat.
Gaelic song meets live computer gaming in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall: there’s a sentence that certainly couldn’t have been coined when Celtic Connections started, 25 years ago. Now it’s another cross-artform, world-first performance taking its place naturally in the festival programme, with this Thursday night’s première of The Bard’s Tale – also laying down yet another unprecedented challenge for the Main Auditorium’s indefatigably world-class production team (in between the small matter of Transatlantic Sessions rehearsals, which start tomorrow), to which they’ll doubtless rise magnificently once again. We hear there are still tickets left, if you fancy being in on a piece of shared traditional/digital history.
What we’re pretty sure was another festival first took place on Friday night, at Rachel Sermanni and Jarlath Henderson’s big show in the City Halls with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, performing brand-new arrangements of both artists’ material by John Ashton Thomas and Paul Campbell. While the common ground between Scotland’s folk and orchestral worlds has been growing larger and more fertile for some time, here Celtic Connections’ ever-widening embrace of other creative genres and disciplines also took in the première of a newly choreographed work by Scottish Ballet’s Jamiel Laurence, performed by seven second-year dancers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Modern Ballet course. Who knows, next year we might see mime somewhere on the bill, or maybe sculpture – certainly the number of artforms safe from Celtic encroachment continues to dwindle.
(Also going back to Friday, we were very tickled by a pal’s description of backstage preparations for The Conundrum: International Piping Night in the New Auditorium, which saw the show’s poor lone banjo player nearly losing the rag as he endeavoured to find a quiet spot to tune, surrounded by a full dozen pipers warming up. Many a fiddler, too, might have felt qualms as their instrument’s sole exponent against such a battalion, but this role in the Conundrum fell to Chris Stout, whose attitude – being from Shetland – was rather more in the vein of bring it on/come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough, and who achieved at the very least a score-draw.)
Completing today’s hat-trick of never-before happenings, tonight sees the Celtic Connections effect in general, and the inspirational impact of Sunday’s Grace and Danger John Martyn tribute in particular, reaching all the way to Hastings. After hearing advance discussion of said show on Cerys Matthews’ BBC 6 Music programme the Sunday before, one Martyn-loving resident of the East Sussex town was moved to organise his own musical homage tonight – a decade to the day since his hero’s passing – with an open-mic session covering the classic songs in the Lord Nelson pub, Martyn’s favoured boozer when he lived in Hastings. At time of writing, a crowd of some 250 were expected - in a venue officially holding 80 at a push. So that’ll be yet another happy, if somewhat fatigued landlord to Celtic Connections’ credit, even 400 miles away from Glasgow.
As tweeted earlier, Gaelic singer Joy Dunlop has a new favourite moment from her role running festival workshops in Glasgow’s schools:  “Me - Hello everyone, My name’s Joy and I’m here today from the Celtic Connections festival, does anyone know what that is? P6 boy - Is it something to do with wifi?!” And while he was right in a way – today’s Celtic bandwagon would grind rapidly to a halt without high-speed internet; a far cry from its early days of snail-mail and faxes – we’re sure that after a session with Joy her respondent himself would have been fully, and joyfully, up to speed.
As observed last week, Monday nights are the quietest at Celtic Connections, with relatively few gigs happening, and seekers of post-show refreshment mostly heading home after just one or two. And thank goodness for that; if the carry-on carried on at Thursday-Sunday’s pitch throughout, none of us would ever make it through 18 days and nights. But while La Bonne Auberge last night was thus an oasis of tranquillity and quiet conversation, compared to the wilds of the weekend, a bunch of hardy souls ensured a contrastingly lively time down at Bar Bloc, in company with quasi-house band The Blas Collective (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year).
Regular mainstays including Adam Sutherland and Steve Forman were joined not only by Snuffbox singer/guitarist Luc McNally, but an early arrival from the wave of Galician artists set to hit Glasgow from tomorrow, in the shape of firebrand piper Anxo Lorenzo – who’s already posting excitedly online about his QMU gig on Friday with Ross & Ali’s Symbiosis – while the multitalented Innes Watson manned the sound desk.
For those who did manage an early Monday bedtime – or are determined just to batter on through the sleep deficit - Folkytown returns to The Flying Duck from 10.30pm tonight, promising “tunes from Adam Sutherland and his tune-faced friends”.
The scale of some folk’s sleep deficit is, however, leading to potential desperate measures, such as being willing, even eager, to pay £3.99 per can for original-recipe, full-sugar Irn Bru, a rare remaining stash of which – following last year’s widely-hated sugar-tax reformulation – was spotted at this price the other day in a Glasgow grocer’s. A certain local creative/social entrepreneur then responded to the ensuing Facebook frenzy of enquiries by revealing possession of her own secret horde, and offering to sell at a mere £3 each – with all proceeds going to support her latest deserving project.
This was all before last weekend, though, so we’re guessing the precious orange nectar has long been snapped up by now, and any being resold will be subject to extreme sellers’-market inflation. It’d be interesting to learn just how high Ross Couper would go for a can of the real stuff. . .
Talking of tireless, though, we were more than a mite impressed to register the post-festival schedule awaiting those inexhaustible bad boys of Ímar, which sees them heading to Ireland barely 24 hours after Celtic finally finishes on Sunday night/Monday morning, to play four gigs between February 5th and 9th (with one day off in the middle, which we suspect will be somewhat comatose). After just a couple of weeks’ respite, they’re then on the road for a full month in Denmark, the US and Canada. Can we please have some of what they’re having?