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Review: Celtic Connections

The Music of AR Rahman

The Music of AR Rahman

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

As Celtic Connections widens its audience in many directions, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall welcomed another demographic when the Asian community turned out in droves, and in cross-generational family units, to welcome a man whose music sales dwarf those of the biggest Western pop stars.

The festival's busy big band, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, were broadcasting live on the BBC's Asian Network as presenter Bobby Friction introduced a big programme that covered the gamut of composer AR Rahman's work for the Bollywood and Hollywood screen, and for the stage, with a sequence from his music for Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna's musical version of The Lord Of The Rings, due to be revived for a world tour next year.

That piece, and much else, featured often wordless vocals from a specially-assembled choir drawn from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Rahman's own Sistema-style music academy in Chennai, India, which the orchestra will visit on its forthcoming tour with Nicola Benedetti. Then the music will be Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Mendelssohn, but here there was only one name that mattered, whether on the credits of Danny Boyle's 127 Hours or countless Bollywood classics. Conductor and arranger Matt Dunkley was joined by vocal soloists and Indian flute specialist Lisa Mallett at the front of the stage, while SSO principals like trumpeter Mark O'Keefe and cellist Martin Storey had their own moments in the spotlight.

But the highlight for everyone present was the appearance of the composer himself, replacing Lynda Cochrane at the piano for a duo improvisation with sitarist Asad Khan as part of a suite from the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire.

Suzanne Vega

City Halls, Glasgow

Alan Morrison

She walked on stage and, with a flick of the wrist, transformed a black disc into a top hat, which she placed on her head at a cheeky Dietrich angle. Suzanne Vega, it would appear, wanted the Glasgow audience on her side from the word go, opening her gig with Marlene On The Wall, from her self-titled 1985 debut album.

The fact she closed her set (before a three-song encore) with Luka and Tom's Diner - her two international hits from 1987 follow-up Solitude Standing - might suggest she was content to play safe. Not a chance.

New songs peppered the running order and, if anything, those from Vega's latest record, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles (released today), boast melodies as strong and immediate as any of her recognised modern classics, even if their more mystic narratives and Tarot colourings are but a flute solo away from acid-folk fantasy of the early 1970s.

The style of the show was much more rooted in Greenwich Village clubs, however. Vega sang centre stage, sometimes with guitar, sometimes without. To her right was Gerry Leonard, producer of the new album and here providing various acoustic/12-string/electric guitar and loop-effect accompaniments.

The fact she could perform Gypsy - a song she wrote aged 18 for a Liverpudlian boyfriend - only two songs down the set list from Jacob And The Angel - one from the new album as yet so fresh she had to refer to lyrics printed on a single sheet of paper - underlined her confidence in a songbook three decades in the making and which grows stronger with every new chapter.

Bill Callahan

02ABC, Glasgow

Nicola Meighan

Baritone Bill Callahan does not seem like a man who raises his voice. Such is the weight of his every word, the impact of his every note, it feels like he would never resort to anything as histrionic as shouting. So while this sold-out performance was typically understated (as was his low-key backing band), it was no less forceful, or beautiful, for it.

Callahan first emerged as a lo-fi troubadour known as Smog around 1990, and the Maryland bard has evolved into one of our great contemporary voices: a songwriter whose melodies evoke languorous high noons, heart-breaks and hoe-downs; a cowboy poet whose central themes are flying, death and the American landscape.

All such universal concerns were evident, from airborne alt-country lullabies like Seagull and Small Plane (from last year's acclaimed long-player, Dream River) and Too Many Birds (from 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle), through a rare and welcome nod to Smog for 2000's underground-rock psalm Dress Sexy At My Funeral. The latter title illustrates the deadpan humour in Callahan's work, an attribute reinforced by the narrative in his live show: he followed up Dress Sexy... with Ride My Arrow (2013), whose opening line is, "I don't ever want to die."

The US remains Callahan's vivid muse - its topography and nature define the one-time ranch-hand's lyrical idiom -so that even on a rainy Saturday in Glasgow, he conjured the wild, wild country via America! ("you are so grand and golden"), Spring ("the mountains don't need my accolades") and the evening's galloping highlight, Drover. "I consoled myself with rudimentary thoughts," he sang. His songs are anything but that.

Jayme Stone's Lomax Project

St Andrew's in the Square, Glasgow

Rob Adams

When Alan Lomax set out with his father, John, in their Model A Ford, carrying such portable recording equipment as the early 1930s could provide, he was beginning a song collecting career that would take him all across America and eventually saw him portrayed by his biographer John Szwed as The Man Who Recorded the World.

Jayme Stone's Lomax Project couldn't possibly cover Lomax's full range of treasure-finding in the time allowed but it did present a wealth of riches, not only in terms of folklore but also in some of the best discoveries of Celtic Connections 2014. Stone himself is a highly accomplished and creative banjo picker whose fluent single-string solos added an extra dimension to his colleagues' songs and in another Celtic Connections debutant , Margaret Glaspy, we heard a voice with a bewitchingly downhome, clear Appalachian spring quality that's more-ish to say the least.

Glaspy's singing of the cowboy ballad Goodbye Old Paint was an early highlight in a set that wasn't the most polished you're likely to hear but what it did have, were the indomitable spirit and hard-won character of the often unrefined performances Lomax captured. What Is The Soul Of Man? found the six-strong cast in Satan-defying Southern States church chorus mode. Maura Smiley's Leather Britches was great fun and her intricate, clap-stamp accompanied reading of The Devil's Nine Questions was thrillingly eerie. Add Tim O'Brien and Bruce Molsky's grainy songs and old-time fiddle tunes and Joe Phillips's no-fuss, big boned, ensemble-anchoring bass playing and this was a transatlantic session with blood, guts and grit.

Cluaidh 's a' Cho- Fhlaitheas: The Clyde and the Commonwealth

City Halls, Glasgow

Rob Adams

Diminishing opportunities in the Gaidhealtachd, sea-going skills Gaels and Clydeside's thriving port combined to bring Highlanders and Islanders to Glasgow, as the strength of the city's Gaelic associations down the years will attest. And where the Gaels went, using Glasgow as the gateway to promised lands of plenty or just a temporary hiring on a ship, songs grew, detailing, privations and homesickness.

Hardship was a word that cropped up often as narrator Angela MacEachen did a superb job of tying together the programme of songs and tunes that related the experiences of bards from across the Hebrides, with slides. It was by no means a tale of constant struggle, however, as character songs including Gillebride MacMillan's wryly inflected Oran na h-Airship (a kind of Gaelic retort to Drunken Sailor) and songs about characters, like the apparently Olympic-standard carouser and womaniser Donald Black.

If the onstage ship occasionally slipped off-course - John Carmichael, Charlie Kirkpatrick and Fergie MacDonald's typically energetic accordion summit meeting had a bit of a bumpy passage with the house band - there were also singing performances of much promise from Royal Conservatoire of Scotland student Ceitlin Smith and the exuberant Robert Robertson, a particularly effective choir arrangement accompanying Cathy Ann MacPhee's An Innis Aigh, and beautifully assured singing, as ever, from James Graham.

Rachel Sermanni

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

Catriona Stewart

SHE seems very nice, Rachel Sermanni, very polite. She seems the type who would help your granny off the bus having given up her seat during the journey.

The 500 filling the entrance hall of Kelvingrove seem also tremendously, un-Glasgow-like polite. Titters, not laughter, greet Sermanni's little between-song anecdotes; clapping greets her songs, rather than applause.

The 22-year-old Highlander, bewitching and beautiful, has earned her stripes and she holds the audience quite spellbound, but she is charming rather than charismatic, and certainly singular of voice. Two Birds, Breathe Easy and Sleepy are lovely, flawless pieces, their chords floating up to stroke the peach and blue ceiling.

Things change with Bones, when Colin Macleod picks up his electric guitar and Jen Austen makes more free with her keyboard. The Fog, in minor key, sounds relatively violent in comparison to the airy tunes before it, as does Black Hole, described by Sermanni as "the most evil of the songs." But then we're back to Marshmallow Unicorn and Song ForA Fox. It's all gorgeous, but becomes a little indistinguishable.

She closes with A Drinker's Song and invites the audience to sing along. They demur. Whether through abashedness or through a desire to hear a last little clutch of Sermanni's voice, it adds to the feel of restraint. That politeness again. A little more letting down of hair and she would be faultless.

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