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Reviews: Celtic Connections

The Ollam

The Ollam

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Rob Adams

The often maligned folk-rock genre experienced not so much a renaissance as a complete reinvention at the hands of two bands here with quite difference approaches to playing tradition-derived music with the sort of beat that gets folks out of their seats and on to their feet.

Pipes, whistle and cittern player Ross Ainslie released one of 2013's strongest Scottish roots albums, Wide Open, and with a band largely featuring the same players he reprised much of it, illustrating the highly imaginative quality of his writing and arranging. This is tunes with a groove and an ensemble that can build effectively and dramatically, and with Ainslie's thrilling piping especially it often suggested the sound his mentor, the late Gordon Duncan might have made given similar circumstances.

While Ainslie works with melodic variety given rhythmic heft, with Ollam the real diversity goes on underneath the superb, brilliantly synchronised double whistle lines of John McSherry and Tyler Duncan. Their drummer, Michael Shimmin and bass guitarist Joe Dart play with apparently telepathic understanding, putting out now crisp, precision punctuation, now a loose, Caribbean feel, now serious heavyosity as Rhodes electric piano offers moody colours and an amplified acoustic guitar chops, picks and thrashes.

One complaint might be that McSherry could have played uilleann pipes more because with his improvising ability soaring over the rhythm section's powerful inventiveness, the effect could be beyond exhilarating. As it was, one particular passage where Shimmin opened up his kit and the whistles unfolded a slow glissando Ry Cooder would have been proud of was worth catching alone and the encore in which Irish brogue romanced Latin American metre was delicious.

In the Tradition

St Andrew's in the Square, Glasgow

Rob Adams

Celtic Connections long ago broadened its musical horizons, and continues to do so. Yet at its heart the festival remains true to the music that formed the basis of its early programmes and St Andrew's in the Square hosts a fair-sized portion of it.

Following the withdrawal due to illness of one of Friday's headlining attractions, Shetlander Jenna Reid, a kind of master and apprentices quality emerged in the opening fiddle concert as Caithness's Gordon Gunn occupied the main spot in a bill alongside Invernessian Graham Mackenzie and Reid's fellow Shetlander Ross Couper.

At 23, Mackenzie doesn't look much different from the wee lad who lit up a Scottish Fiddle Festival weekend some years ago, but his playing has matured and if he seemed a little nervous here and didn't quite achieve the flow he's capable of, he acquitted himself well across a variety of tune styles. Nerves aren't a problem for Couper and his partner, guitarist and flautist Tom Oakes, as they play with plenty of gusto. A little more persuasiveness mightn't have gone amiss, though.

Working with the subtle, inventive harmonic know-how of Brian McAlpine (keyboard) and Marc Clement (guitar), Gordon Gunn displayed a mighty repertoire of tones and tunes from a variety of sources. An original air dedicated to his father elicited a lovely near-viola-like timbre. A medley opening with Irish accordionist Mairtin O'Connor's Shop Street suggested the musical offspring of Scott Skinner and the gypsy swing tradition, and the Blue Reel had blue notes indeed as Gunn played with superb clarity, easy mobility and a touch that emphasised his feeling for his material.

Far Far From Ypres

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

Judging by the reception the evening was accorded at its end, I suspect I was one of the few who felt that Jimmy McDonald was sold a little short. He is supposedly the centre of this assemblage of songs from and about the First World War, a fictional Scottish "Tommy" whose experience of the Great War provides the framework on which the sequence is hung. But Jimmy's appearances in Iain Anderson's narrative were few and far between, and I knew little more about him and his sacrifice at the end of the evening than I had at the beginning.

Reprised for the centenary of the start of the war, having begun life as a Greentrax recording project and been part of Celtic Connections 2012, this latest incarnation of Ian McCalman's commemorative project boasted appearances from Dick Gaughan, Barbara Dickson and the ubiquitous Phil Cunningham, stepping forward from an ensemble of two dozen musicians, mostly singers with a sparse instrumental accompaniment of snare drums and guitars, piped on by Gary West.

The occasional photograph of a contemporary military funeral aside, the slides projected behind them were either of the time, or abstract images from nature. If there was any larger purpose than an act of remembrance, it was obscure, and that seemed a wasted opportunity to me. While Anderson's narration was full of interesting detail, and the information that Dickson's uncle David was a teenage casualty at the Somme gave her contribution personal context, any larger lessons that may have been drawn from the experience of that, now gone, generation were left unspoken.

Stevie Palmer and Siobhan Miller provided more youthful musical highlights, but a little more theatrical life in the show would not have gone amiss.

The Pop Group/The Sexual Objects

02 ABC, Glasgow

Neil Cooper

Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager's re-formed crew of original punk-funk provocateurs aren't an obvious choice for Celtic Connections. Then again, anyone who ca n mix up a multicultural stew of free jazz, dub and anti-capitalist agitprop is more connected than most, as the Pop Group prove in their first Glasgow show for 33 years.

Tonight is also about celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the similarly eclectic Creeping Bent record label, and the evening begins with a set from The Sexual Objects, former Fire Engine Davy Henderson's latest groove-laden vehicle. Selections from their forthcoming second album are preceded by a magnificently audacious cover of You've Got The Power by Henderson's former band Win. Stripped of its 1980s production gloss, tonight it more resembles the Velvet Underground's What Goes On.

The Pop Group go one better with their opening clarion call of We Are All Prostitutes, as Stewart shrieks out his proclamations, towering over the crowd like a sniper, clutching his lyric sheets to his chest.

Sager stabs out piercing guitar shards that take no prisoners, or else blows a strangled clarinet on the equally damning Thief Of Fire. The sound is fleshed out by a youthful recruit on second guitar, with drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Dan Catsis providing the funk.

Stewart's prophecies of doom are nowhere better encapsulated than on the band's defining statement, She Is Beyond Good And Evil, which still sounds like the most dangerous song ever written. With Sager shimmying his way through a closing Where There's A Will and We Are Time, the) result is an incendiary call to arms and a soundtrack to a revolution you can dance to.

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