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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Sian at Celtic Connections 2018

Starting the evening was a new trio, Sian, consisting of Eilidh Cormack, winner of the Ladies’ Gold Medal at the Royal National Mòd on her first attempt at the age of 18 and a semi-finalist in BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2016; Ellen MacDonald, currently performing with Dàimh and also often with Gaelic-tronica pioneers Niteworks; and Ceitlin L R Smith, winner of the Traditional Gold Medal at the Royal National Mòd,  a Danny Kyle winner, and a former lead singer for Gria.  Their voices blended together beautifully, and their harmonies were stellar.  As usual at Celtic Connections Gaelic song shows, I wished I spoke Gaelic, so I could understand the jokes and the lyrics.  It didn’t matter, as their wonderful songs and presence was enough. (Okay, a CD we could bring home so the Oak and Thorn audience could enjoy Sian, too, would have made the evening perfect.)

Margaret Stewart at Celtic Connections 2018Have you ever been in the presence of royalty?  That’s what it felt like when Margaret Stewart, Gold Medal  Mod winner and 2008  Gaelic Singer of the Year and 2011 Musician in Residence at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Scotland’s Gaelic College, walked onto the stage and began singing.  Her voice filled the hall, spreading its magic and power.  Performing with a harp accompaniment, Stewart swept the audience back in time, to an era of the great bards.  She showed off her vocal range with soaring laments, ballads, and what should have been a very sad song about a poor maid whipped out of a house, but the melody was too cheerful.  Add to all of her musical talent is her delightful sense of humor.

Kathleen MacInnes at Celtic Connections 2018

Kathleen MacInnes, Gaelic Singer of the Year in 2006 and actress, has a smoky voice and a cheeky presence.  Reading from seventies-era Gaelic/English pages, clearly badly translated text, she had the Gaelic speakers roaring with laughter.  Moments later, she broke our hearts with a tragic ballad of loss, a Gaelic song specialty.  Her fans were everywhere in the hall, all eager to share tidbits about her career as a singer and as an actress.  While she didn’t sing much in this show, there’s another chance to see her in the “Oran nan Gaidheal” event at the Royal Concert Hall on the 26th.

This was truly a magical evening of gorgeous harmonies and beautiful songs, all in Gaelic, in an all-woman show featuring songs written by women.

https://sian-music.com/
http://www.margaretstewart.com/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathleen_MacInnes

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Hannah Rarity at Celtic Connections 2018

Hannah Rarity is one of the exciting new talents featured at Celtic Connections.  She won us over with her first song, a great rendition of the Child Ballad”Alison Cross.”  Not confining herself to traditional material, she shared her own work, and also worked in a cover of a song by indie pop-folk band The Weepies.  Her amazing vocal talents really showed on last song, Andy M. Stewart’s “Where Are You Tonight I Wonder.”  She took Stewart’s words and imbued them with a sadness that surpassed the original version – hard to believe if you weren’t there to see it.

https://www.hannahrarity.com/home

Cathal McConnell at Celtic Connections 2018

There are things that never seem to change, and Cathal McConnell is one of them.  His humor, the lessons of each tune’s history, those are a part of Cathal that makes for a cozy evening of songs and wonderful flute and whistle tunes.  It’s no wonder that he’s a favorite of the crowd, who would call out to him for more songs or a specific tune.  A Cathal show is filled with excellent takeaway lines, such as: “I’ll just keep talking until I have something to say.”  His patter is on a par with his playing, which is incredible, and his singing.  He has a huge repertoire of songs, ranging from silly to “Young Donald,” a song “so sad it shouldn’t have been written in the first place.”

He’s a true gem of traditional music.

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Niamh Dunne, guitarist/accordionist Seán Óg Graham and bassist Conor McCreanor

Niamh Dunne, guitarist/accordionist Seán Óg Graham and bassist Conor McCreanor

Watching Niamh Dunne light up the stage is almost as good as listening to her beautiful singing and fiddling.  She entered the stage smiling, joking, inviting the audience to be her friend, and how could anyone refuse that offer?

Niamh’s set was a mix of trad and contemporary, paired in a way that made perfect sense.  She began with a traditional Irish rebel song to honor recently departed Dolores O’Riordan and worked her way over to cover “The Highwayman,” then back to traditional tunes, another protest song, finishing with “Games People Play.”

http://niamhdunne.com/

Liz Carroll at Celtic Connections 2018

Liz Carroll at Celtic Connections 2018

Every show I’ve seen with Liz Carroll has always been exceptional.  Her mastery of the fiddle is jaw-dropping.  During her too-brief set, she lulled the audience with a beautiful tune written for her brother about hanging tinsel on the Christmas tree, thrilled us with blazing fast reels, and charmed us with her jokes.

Liz is a very funny woman, and her sense of humor sometimes inspires a tune or six.  One of these tunes was written for a bird that sings outside her window all summer long, twisting the ending of its song regularly and driving her crazy.  That, of course, inspired a tune!  What a complicated, wonderful piece of music.  (And I really want to know what kind of bird that was.)  An encounter with a piglet brought forth a delightful tune where her bowing create squealing pig sounds.  No, really.  It was incredible.

She is also a sneaky woman, and that doesn’t count her “sneaky hornpipe.”  As a surprise, harpist Catriona McKay joined her on stage for a blistering set that was worth the ticket price right there.

https://www.lizcarroll.com/

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Scotland’s Wild Heart

The only thing missing from the opening segment of this evening for us Americans was popcorn.  “Scotland’s Wild Heart” was a condensed version of a 2016 BBC series, featuring incredible footage of Scotland’s wild vistas and animals.  Donald Shaw’s score, played live by a first rate orchestra, fit perfectly with the beautiful scenes of soaring White-tailed Eagles; Capercaillies strutting through the morning cold, their breath trailing mist; otters frolicking in snow and water; whales, orcas; gray seals nuzzling their young; and all the glories of Scotland’s natural, wild environs.

For those able to access the BBC’s iplayer, the whole series is available http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03pjc9p .  Do yourself a favor, with or without the popcorn, watch this series and listen to the amazing music.

The rest of the evening was equally amazing.

The String Sisters at Celtic Connections 2018

Magic happened seventeen years ago, when Catriona Macdonald, Annbjørg Lien, Liz Carroll, Liz Knowles, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, and Emma Härdelin came together to become the String Sisters as a one-off gig at Celtic Connections.  They had such a great time that, despite commitments to other bands and projects, they keep finding ways to perform together.  And we’re all luckier for it.

Their combination of Nordic and Celtic styles is fantastic.  The energy they create when all six fiddles fill the hall is electric.  They seamlessly split the music between themselves, becoming solos, duos, and then all six back again.

Backing them is the String Misters: Tore Bruvoll on guitar, Dave Milligan on piano, Conrad Molleson on bass and James Mackintosh playing percussion.

This caliber of musicianship only happens at large festivals like Celtic Connections.  Gathering all these busy musicians together requires a great deal of work.  Many thanks to the String Sisters, the String Misters, and the staff of Celtic Connections for making this happen.

The String Sisters http://www.stringsisters.net/
Catriona Macdonald https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catriona_MacDonald
Annbjørg Lien http://annbjorglien.com/
Liz Carroll https://www.lizcarroll.com/
Liz Knowles https://www.lizknowles.com/
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh http://www.mairead.ie/
Emma Härdelin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_H%C3%A4rdelin

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Celtic Connections 2018 started for us with two very different bands playing in the Strathclyde Suite.  The opening quartet, consisting of two Irishmen from bluegrass backgrounds, Paddy Kiernan and Niall Hughes, and two Iranian brothers, Shahab and Shayan Coohe, set a high bar for the evening.  Blending multiple genres, they interwove banjo, bass, santoor, tar, and tombak into gorgeous, complex tunes that mesmerize.  The combination of music and musicians having a great time was a perfect beginning.  The audience rose in a standing ovation at the end, demanding more that the band admitted they didn’t have prepared.  Luckily for all, they have a new CD, Tapestry, for all their new fans.

Nava at Celtic Connections 2018

http://www.navatheband.com/

via Creative Scotland’s website, and also via the Secret North’s website.

The Secret North, we were told, was not a band, but a project that combined six musicians who had never worked together and were from different traditions, who got together for five days over the summer to compose new music that shared and crossed boundaries.  I think they managed that goal very well.  Their sound was a lot of Celtic, some Nordic, jazz, a little discordia, and poetry.

The project has a world class line-up: Donald Grant – Fiddle; Ailie Robertson – Harp, Sondre Meisfjord – Double Bass, Karen Tweed – Accordion, Jarlath Henderson – Whistle, Pipes, and Marit Fält – Mandola.

https://www.thesecretnorth.com/

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One of the many charms of Celtic Connections is the focus on “connections.”  Lahira is an incredible connection of Celtic and Indian musicians. Skye Gaelic singer Anne Martin provides the Celtic base with her strong voice and presence.  Joining her are British-Indian vocal/electro artist Jason Singh, along with two of India’s most revered musicians – violinist Sharat Chandra Srivastava and Gyan Singh on tabla.  Bassist/guitarist Joe Harrison-Greaves is also in the group.  This is something that must be experienced by all traditional and crossover music lovers.  Martin may start out with what seems to be a traditional Gaelic song, but once Srivastava adds the violin for the tune’s heart and Singh grounds it with his rhythms, there is no telling where your imagination will soar on the music.  Watching the audience get into the songs and tunes was almost as much fun as enjoying what the band was providing on stage.  Sadly, they had no CD to buy, but you can follow them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Lahiramusic/ .

The main act was billed as KGB – Keenan, Gavin, and Byrne.  Old friends Paddy Keenan and Frankie Gavin had a wonderful night poking fun at each other, with Paddy using his pipes to make chicken squawks and play “Happy Birthday” to himself.  Always a comedian, Frankie raced through jokes almost as fast as he can fiddle.  Dermot Byrne held down his end of the stage with a patient smile and incredible accordion virtuosity, whenever Paddy and Frankie were ready to play some tunes.  This gig had so many highlights, from the running gag of Paddy’s first job as an egg-sorter (prompted by the chicken squawks), to old favorite tunes played by master musicians, to Dermot’s solo, and an unscheduled departure from traditional tunes to an old rock standard.  Old friends playing beautiful music made for a grand evening.

https://www.paddykeenan.com/

https://frankiegavin-dedannan.irish/

http://www.dermotandflo.com/

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A capacity crowd at the Matheson Theater experienced performance art of the highest caliber Saturday night.   The concert was sold out and extra seats were added, but we still had to turn some people away.  Those who bought tickets in advance were very happy to have done so!

The performance was nothing short of spectacular.  A blend of music and oratory, falling somewhere between concert and theater, it spanned nearly the range of human feeling; from humor to tragedy, tenderness to rage, reality to mysticism, and more besides.  The effects were powerful and exhilarating.

LegendsThe performers were: Patrick Ball, oratory and wire-strung Celtic harp; Lisa Lynne, Celtic harp, Irish bouzouki, and mandolin; Aryeh Frankfurter, harp, cittern, and nyckelharpa.  Essentially, Aryeh and Lisa played instrumental music and Patrick told stories, punctuated by intervals of ensemble playing.  (Which is a little like saying, “Essentially, Michaelangelo’s David is a large male figure carved in marble.”  Kind of an understatement!)  The playing alone would be worth the admission, as the familiar melodies of Irish (and sometimes Scottish and even Breton) music become richly evocative in the complex and densely textured arrangements.  Celtic harp and Swedish nyckelharpa (a kind of keyed fiddle with resonant strings) come together wonderfully in the opening tune, “The Arran Boat.”

Then Patrick begins to speak.  It isn’t really accurate to say that Patrick “tells stories,” or even that he brings stories to life – it’s more that he brings you into the world of the story.  It is a kind of magic.  There were several moments where I was no longer simply watching a performance, but found myself actually experiencing the events Patrick was describing.  Some of the passages are not even stories, in the usual sense; the opening bit, for example, is more a kind of oratory, interpreting the Song (or Challenge, or Boast) of Amergin, the Milesian Druid.  An eyewitness description of a 16th century Irish feast, and what occurred when an ancient harper was asked to sing a particular song, turns from amusing to astonishing to spine-chilling. The piece de resistance, occupying the whole second half of the show, is the Ursula K. LeGuin story, Gwilan’s Harp; and if you can see this performed without being utterly caught up in emotion, get someone to check you for a pulse.

Legends Patrick gesturing

Lisa Lynne took a turn, relating the story of her evolution from a rock bass player to a Celtic folk harper; and when she described her experience playing harp for a child injured in the Columbine massacre, you could hear the entire audience holding their breath.

When I was not caught up in the spell, I was impressed by the craft.  It sounds simple; you two play music, and I’ll tell a story.  But the story and music each have their own rhythms, and to achieve the transportive effect – getting the audience to forget they were watching, and instead become part of the experience – means geting the timing, pitch, and intonations exactly right.  It’s like harmony: the closer you get to the perfect notes, the more sublime the sound becomes.  It is clear these three work hard at getting this right, even as it is also clear that they themselves become caught up in the spell they are weaving.  It is also clear, from the abundant humour and easy grace, that they really enjoy doing this.

At the end, the audience leapt to their feet for a prolonged standing ovation, before the performers returned to their harps for one last ensemble set.   Lisa invited everyone to come down to the stage and examine the harps, even play them, and many took her up on the offer.  Eventually, reluctantly, people departed, perhaps aware that they had witnessed something truly special.

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