This 21st edition of Celtic Connections has given every coming cultural highlight of what looks set to be a very busy 2014 a tough act to follow. This concert was high on my "must-see" list, teaming a Quebecois trio I have only caught up with on disc over the past year and the winners of last year's Danny Kyle Open Stage Award, the young all-female quartet Gria. As Orcadian fiddler Louise Bichan revealed, the group has had some mentoring from the French Canadians as well.
Both groups certainly know how to make irresistible dance music, which made the venue for their concert less than perfect - and I speak as the second bloke to shake a tailfeather, badly as usual. In the case of Gria, the dance tunes came at the very start of their set, an unscheduled instrumental opening covering for the absence of singer Ceitlin Smith, who is from Lewis, but was specifically en route from another gig. If any group is likely to repeat Jimmy Shand's Bluebell Polka trick in taking such music to the top of the hit parade, Gria may well be it. With contemporary waulking songs and lovely ballads in their repertoire too, they have a broad range of musical styles at their command.
The unlikely fiddle, harmonica and bouzouki combination of Andre Brunet, Pierre-Luc Dupuis, and Eric Beaudry (all once in La Bottine Souriante) is at the heart of De Temps Antan, whose punning French name suggests old time music and ranges geographically from Montreal to the Mississippi. If they sound and look like they are having fun, their skill is projecting that enthusiasm in the most infectious way possible.
St Andrew's in the Square, Glasgow
Karan Casey's latest album, Two More Hours, marks a departure for the Cork-based singer who has earned a loyal following for outstanding performances at Celtic Connections over the years. Always a superb interpreter of shrewdly chosen material, with Two More Hours Casey has showcased her own songwriting, venturing into a more personal style, although she has no lack of history in putting her own experience into a performance.
If this gig seemed illustrative of a work in progress, with her band of guitarist Sean Og Graham, soprano saxophonist Kenneth Edge, drummer Danny Byrt, and Lunasa and former Waterboys bassist Trevor Hutchinson, still wearing the songs in to some extent, it's one with the familiar Casey voice and outgoing personality as its focal point.
Songs written for family members emphasised the personal and perhaps cathartic nature of her songwriting, with Lovely Annie illustrating a clearly heartfelt love and admiration for her late mother and Young And Beautiful combining advice for her teenaged daughter with the kind of soaring melody she's previously found in other writers or traditional songs and that suits her style perfectly.
The album's title track and Fishes Will Fly introduced more overtly and not quite so convincing American influences, the former flirting with country music, the latter having a late 50s rock'n'roll ambience. But a brace of songs from her back catalogue, Scotsman Ian Sinclair's The King's Shilling and a fabulous, unaccompanied The Snows They Melt The Soonest, captured Casey at her absolute best, a marriage of voice and material that her newer songs might need a few more road miles to match with consistency.