Off and running

​And we’re back!!! Welcome one and all to Celtic Connections 2016, which looms larger and brighter than ever (if you can loom brightly?) within the worldwide cultural calendar, a true jewel in Glasgow’s UNESCO City of Music crown. And, of course, a totally unbeatable way to commence the year. The myriad butterflies in the Scottish music community’s collective tummies have been mounting apace since Hogmanay – and now it begins.
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted from their brochures that this year’s festival has managed to sprawl across an extra date at either end, with Edith Bowman’s BBC Quay Sessions serving up a foretaste at the CCA last night, including live sets from This Is the Kit and James Grant. Somewhere in the dim and distant future, meanwhile (ie 18 days and nights away), the by-popular-demand second performance of Bert Inspired, with Robert Plant, Bernard Butler and Jacqui McShee paying tribute to the late great Mr Jansch, means it ain’t over until February. Talking of the brochure, this year sees its total pagination, including the central pull-out section, hitting three figures – 12 more than last year - with yet more venues extending the festivities still further. Among them are the Theatre Royal (for the very special Piaf! The Show); Drygate (for a specially-curated line-up called The Shape of Folk to Come, as well as the Late Night Sessions); the Concert Hall’s splendid New Auditorium, and the wonderfully welcoming Glad Café, a favourite Glasgow musicians' haunt year-round. Embrace the festival’s theme of travel and crossing boundaries, and check these new places out.

Even today, the music’s already started, with the hand-picked house band for tonight’s eagerly-anticipated opening concert, The Carrying Stream, playing this morning for a delighted capacity crowd of local schoolkids – the first of our five education concerts this year – later followed by the Janice Forsyth Show, again broadcasting from the CCA (as with all the BBC’s Celtic Connections shows), with festival guests Barbara Dickson, Bwani Junction and James Robertson.

Tonight’s main event, of course, celebrates 50 years of Scotland’s Traditional Music and Song Association – a golden anniversary indeed, which is set to be fêted in suitably sumptuous style. The show’s musical director, Siobhan Miller, sees a potent symbolism in the programming of this occasion, to open what’s arguably the world’s biggest folk/roots festival. “Throughout all of its 50 years, the TMSA itself has worked to provide a platform for traditional singers, and it just feels so right for Celtic Connections now to give such a hugely prestigious platform to the TMSA itself. It takes this year’s festival right back to the heart of the tradition in its purest form, which I think shows a lovely full-circle dynamic going on within Scottish music.”

After copious electronic exchanges among The Carrying Stream’s star-studded, multi-generational cast – including Arthur Johnstone, Sheena Wellington, Barbara Dickson, Jimmy Hutchison, Kris Drever, Adam McNaughtan and Malinky, with international guests Sam Lee, Thomas McCarthy and Rayna Gellert – final rehearsals began on Tuesday, with Miller and the band mapping out accompanying arrangements, before the singers took their turns yesterday. In a good many cases, it’s the first time those involved have worked together, lending the collaborations a freshness and spark which Miller counts among her favourite musical qualities. “It’s a bit like what happens with the Transatlantic Sessions,” she says, “when people have only just met and then go through this fast, intensive rehearsal process – there’s a bit of extra adrenalin going, and the music ends up being genuinely newly-made: it’s a very special feeling.” Within this context, she pays particular tribute to her six chosen instrumentalists - Anna Massie, Aaron Jones, Megan Henderson, John Blease, Tom Gibbs and Euan Burton: "They're all just amazing; such a totally great team."

Offering plenty of contrasts has been Miller’s main objective in shaping tonight’s programme, with arrangements spanning the spectrum from lavish full-band lushness to wholly unaccompanied. Similarly, while relishing the auspiciousness of the occasion and the setting, she is keen to balance this with traditional singaround conviviality. “I really want to recreate the feeling you get at the TMSA’s own concerts and sessions – really relaxed, totally family-friendly and informal. So many of these singers have such amazing charisma, both as performers and as characters, that any barrier between them and the audience just dissolves.”

And, she adds, if you’re going to the show, you too can play your part in creating this atmosphere. “A lot of the songs we’re doing have great choruses, and we really want people to join in,” she says. “It’s one of my strongest memories from my earliest TMSA concerts – when your audience sings along with you, there’s just no sensation like it.”
Following the concert (during which Miller also promises a few celebratory surprises), there could be no more apposite afterparty than 2016’s inaugural House of Song, over the road at the Holiday Inn, which will surely see Doris Rougvie hosting a uniquely distinguished gathering of guests.