Celtic Connections, Mairi Smith & Friends,
Mackintosh Church, Glasgow, Rob Adams THREE STARS
Mairi Smith may not have many friends in the weather centre - ticket holders were still trudging in off snowy Maryhill Road as the second half got underway here - but the singer from Lewis is clearly valued by the ones she's made in musical circles. From Wales, Ireland and closer to home they came to share the stage with Smith in a concert that was more like a ceilidh, held in a church but with the informality of a house gathering.
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Many of these dozen or so friends can front their own Celtic Connections concerts, and indeed their own concerts across the world, so it's testament to Smith's qualities as singer and as a source of songs, as the popular young Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis noted, that they came along for just a song or two of their own.
As with many of the leading Scottish Gaelic singers, Smith has made a considerable impact in Ireland and the superb MaighrÃ©ad NÃ Dhomhnail and her keyboard-playing sister, TrÃona, lent their vocal and instrumental magic to a setting that confirmed the universality of themes in traditional songs. Julie Murphy, singing in Welsh with Ceri Owen Jones on harp, and Ceitlin Smith, singing in Gaelic, both effectively conveyed the emigrant's yearning for home.
There were fine instrumental touches especially from Calum Alex MacMillan, who sang characterfully as well as playing very able smallpipes, and Duncan Chisholm, whose fiddle playing added delicately poised, sympathetic expression. Smith herself was an unassuming, almost deferential host but she sang with genuine warmth and great heart in her more forthright moments, earning a standing ovation from participants and listeners alike.
The Second Coming
Mary Brennan (16 - 18/1/15)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre - the high-flying performers of Fidget Feet Aerial Dance from Ireland take inspiration from WB Yeats and his poem, The Second Coming. It's not until near the end, however, that the two metalwork spirals that hang so emblematically above the stage become a twining-climbing frame for a lithe Adam and Eve in sheeny white body-skins. It's an exquisite moment in a show that has veered erratically from beauty to banality, with some truly dire verbiage displacing Yeats' original verse.
A look-alike chap has descended from on high to voice the text.This is the "second coming" that the mix of music, dance and aerial manouevres envisages: a visitation by Yeats, to see for himself what anarchy has been loosed in the decades since his death in 1939. At the heart of it all is the place that tradition - in the music and the dance, especially - has in the culture. For sure, without the Riverdance effect, Yeats might have looked in vain for both beyond the pub for one and the competition circuit for the other. Now, of course, the stamp of it is known worldwide and the nimble-footed Fidget-eers deliver some rattlingly brisk episodes of hard-shoe snap and dash to crackingly fine live music from harp, flute and all. Off the ground, they tumble and spin like truly free spirits on thermals of Yeatsian imagery. But when you add in the backdrop of busy projections, the insistence on making Yeats's mysticism and symbolism concrete - Herne's Egg, anyone? - then a decent broth of a show falls victim to too many cooks.
Justin Townes Earle, O2 ABC, Glasgow
As Justin Townes Earle dryly remarked during this gig, not even his mother thought he would make it to 33. That's the age the Nashville native is currently at, and thankfully the biggest issue he faced here was a troublesome guitar, as opposed to any of his other well documented issues.
His arrival was preceded by a set from Lindsey Black, whose voice has graced many a combo over the years and is now making a solo go of it. The vocal remains soulful and enjoyable, the actual tunes pleasant enough but too inoffensive for their own good.
The early numbers in Earle's set featured a few issues with that aforementioned guitar, and it was evident this was the first night of the tour. That didn't hamper matters to any real degree, though, and there was an enjoyable contrast between his downbeat lyricism and toe-tapping tunes with Ain't Waitin and Memphis In The Rain a particularly effective double-header.
It was just Earle and pedal steel player Paul Niehaus, and the latter's playing was excellent throughout. The two-man set-up did sometimes feel almost too intimate for a venue like the ABC, and more sparse material, such as Worried About The Weather, struggled to come across effectively in the setting. Yet Earle's vignettes are filled with character, both lyrically and melodically.
White Gardenias painted a vivid picture, Harlem River Blues was a morbid shuffler, and Mama Said served up some hard blues emphatically. It's Earle's strength that his Americana comes so sharply, while a dash of covers near the end infused the likes of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams and a terrific Georgia On A Fast Train with his own personality.
Music: Celtic Connections
Ganesh Kumaresh with Trio AAB
The Mackintosh Church, Glasgow
This is a four star review
There was something for every palate on Saturday night as Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Queens Cross Church opened its doors for a cultural coming together that proved to be something of a genre buster.
Perthshire based fiddler Patsy Reid opened proceedings with a fine set of tunes from a tightly knit band that produced a sound with a retro-progressive feel, including a Donald Shaw composition, A Precious Place, with a mesmerising interplay between drummer Signy JakobsdÃ³ttir and bassist Ben Nicholls.
Parallels can be drawn between the venues's architecture and the Carnatic music of Ganesh and Kumaresh Rajagopalan, two virtuoso violin-wielding brothers from India. For all its seeming complexity, it's really quite simply constructed. As they helpfully pointed out, they use the same seven chords as musicians elsewhere in the world; just differently. The breathtaking scope of their sound, which was filmic, rhythmically precise and with a healthy dose of improvisation, was astonishing. The thunderous percussion of Anantha R Krishnan had the effect of a stick of dynamite in a fireworks factory, giving their set of sometimes extended extemporisations an explosive edge.
There was a sibling synergy going on when, forty minutes into the set, the brothers were joined by Trio AAB; those giants of Scottish jazz: Phil and Tom Bancroft and Kevin Mackenzie. When the two trios combined we heard something sextet-tabulously new: as a wholly innovative musical language was created in five new pieces of music. What we heard, and you might too, if recording plans come to fruition, was a seamless melding of cross-continental music where violins met saxophone in harmonic unity and ambient textures and vocals became one. This was a triumphant concert for Celtic Connections and underlines its influence in the development of new music where boundaries cease to exist.
Le Vent du Nord
Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow
It would be a stony-hearted listener indeed who wasn't eventually charmed by Le Vent du Nord. These four indelibly cheerful Quebecers have been touring the world together for more than a decade and still appear to be having a whale of a time. They're wonderfully uninhibited at showing it, too, in a way that can take us dour Scots aback. From any less lovable a quartet, the cheeky antics of accordionist RÃ©jean Brunet or the persistently daft jokes of hurdy-gurdy player Nicolas Boulerice might deserve some eye-rolling. There's polish to their stage show that might grate against the earthy grain of their music - if that music wasn't delivered with such copious spirit. Le Vent du Nord are the genuine article: a vibrant, big-hearted slice of Quebec, happy banter and all.
Beneath all that is a serious commitment to traditional French-Canadian music, in which fierce national pride and romance quickly bubble to the surface. All four of the quartet are superb singers: their voices are rich and buzzy and they roam through beguiling minor-mode harmonies. There's a rousing camaraderie to their call-and-response songs. Their instrumentals are fearless, too, with furious reels flung from hurdy-gurdy, accordion and fiddle and powered by deft foot-tapping percussion from Olivier Demers.
We'd already heard several snippets from the quartet at this year's Celtic Conncections and by Saturday night a couple of their songs and stories were starting to sound familiar. But an augmented line-up made for a sense of occasion (luxury backing indeed from top local fiddlers Patsy Reid and Megan Henderson). Guest solos from singers Julie Fowlis, Emily Smith and the excellent accordionist Sharon Shannon were a nice touch, but the bright energy was all Le Vent themselves.