I am not sure it mattered to another packed house in Glasgow's big hall on Friday evening, but the chap on the podium was a bit of an arranging superstar. Vince Mendoza has worked with the Brecker Brothers, Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny in the jazz world and given the diverse talents of Bjork, Robbie Williams and Elvis Costello a different context for their work.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
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Here he was directing the ever-adaptable BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in his own arrangements of songs from the back catalogue of Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose name had brought in the crowd. Much more than just strings backing the tunes, Mendoza made full use of all the musicians onstage for much of the time, even if certain tropes were detectable that either gave the whole programme a consistency of style or meant for a repetitive stylistic sameness, depending on your point of view.
I fear I ended up in the latter camp, despite the burst of life that came late in the day with the encores of the Burns-derived 10,000 Miles and the Glen Campbell-ish The Hard Way. In the absence of a guitar, Helen Thomson had a busy night on harp, and Stella McCracken's oboe was oft deployed as a solo instrument (never a hardship
to listen to). The songs were mostly in the same stately tempo, and Chapin Carpenter's voice, though rich in the lower register, seemed limited in range. It is debatable whether her simple story-telling really benefits from such lavish treatment, however enjoyable for those on both sides of the footlights.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Bruce Springsteen didn't make it in person but his recent invitation to Lunasa's uilleann piper, Cillian Vallely, to join him in the recording studio ensured the group's spokesman, Kevin Crawford found much material for leg-pulling mirth in a set as entertaining as it was consistently excellent musically.
As Vallely's brother Niall found when writing the score for their recent collaboration with the RTE Concert Orchestra, Lunasa makes a very complete sound in its own right without over-playing or driving the music too hard. Their arrangements of jigs, reels and airs are clean and clear, with a variety of instrumentation allowing Vallely and fiddler Sean Smyth to join Crawford in a three-whistle frontline on occasion, and with Trevor Hutchinson's double bass lending a distinctive feature alongside guitarist Ed Boyd, there's considerable momentum in the rhythm section.
Vallely's emotive pipes feature was a particular highlight and Crawford's playing on flute as a well as whistle was a superbly skilful, tradition-rich element at the heart of a classy performance.
The evening's first half would have worked admirably as a concert in itself, with Maru Tarang's convergence of intensely keening sarangi, appositely percussive slide guitar, propulsive tablas and gracefully potent maracas creating a thrilling intercultural connection. Session A9 delivered a boogying, vigorous set of brilliantly arranged fiddle tunes in honour of the absent Kevin Henderson's recently deceased father, Davie, an irreplaceable force for Shetland music, before Maru Tarang joined them for a blast of fiddle fire laced with improvised Indian singing and Ganges delta flavours.
Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow
Some small sense of Celtic Connections' now global reach could be gleaned from two gigs on Friday in which music and song from and inspired by the Hebrides was presented in very different settings. With roots in Tiree as well as Argyll, ceilidh dance band Skipinnish turned the Arches into a Highland village hall, delivering first-class musical entertainment that honoured the dance band tradition but moved seamlessly forward into the Runrig and beyond generation with guest pipers and the marvellous fiddler Archie McAllister adding extra verve and depth.
McAllister's playing would likely have thrilled Elephant Revival's Bridget Law, who has fed her love of Scottish fiddle music, and the influences of Lewis and Taransay into the Colorado band's sophisticated hybrid of American roots music. Old-time fiddle music, jug band blues and gospel-inflected work songs form the basis for the Revival's repertoire alongside songs that introduce elements of swing and alt-folk.
What really stays in the mind afterwards, though, is the quality of sound that they make with fiddle, guitars, mandolin, banjo, double bass and washboard and an embarrassment of riches in terms of distinctive lead voices as they take songs in turn as well as harmonising beautifully. A particular asset is Bonnie Paine's sweetly resonating, rustic and nice-as-apple-pie singing, which made her own Remembering A Beginning an enchanting reflective interlude among the more dynamically forceful but no less compelling Rogue River and the shamelessly catchy Grace of a Woman. Her musical saw commentaries on the encore were another treat to match the drum corps-like detail and drive of her washboard playing.
The New Mendicants
It is not especially obvious on their album, on which Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and Joe Pernice are a joined by drummer Mike Belitsky to become The New Mendicants, but as a duo Pernice and Blake are so obviously the new Simon and Garfunkel it seems incredible they have not been hailed as such.
The disc, Into The Lime, boasts rockier tunes like the very funny Lifelike Hair which means the identity of this side project makes sense. As a duo however, with just acoustic guitars and Blake adding the occasional flourish on entirely apposite glockenspiel, the focus is thrown on their harmonies, and the way in which their voices blend was the live revelation of the night. This worked best when Pernice was in the Simon role and Blake added the Garfunkel high tenor or falsetto line. Adding songs from the back catalogue of both Teenage Fanclub and the Pernice Brothers, the bulk of the set came from the album, with its sole cover of Sandy Denny's By The Time It Gets Dark emerging as a real highlight.
The pair have set the bar high for the next recordings by their respective main interests, as well as for the soundtrack of the forthcoming film of Nick Hornby's book A Long Way Down, for which some of the songs were written, but rejected by the producers. If the movie has tunes of the quality of opener High On The Skyline and Follow You Down, I'm keen to hear them.