Our round-up of some of the best on offer from Celtic Connections

Punch Brothers

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Rob Adams


Are Punch Brothers the best band on the planet? They would surely have to be contenders. They're certainly among the most pliable, able to change the shape and style of their music seemingly endlessly and in a heartbeat.

Within a ten minute period during this superlative demonstration of individual and collective musicianship, you might have heard the most sophisticated of vocal harmonies and instrumental arrangements, tempo shifts reminiscent of Stravinsky, a section from a Debussy suite, and melodic hooks that any pop songwriter would covet, and yet you're never far away from a reminder that this, were its components of such a mind, could be a straightforward, if ridiculously accomplished, bluegrass band.

As the unscheduled, PA-less opening "fiddle tune" and a later five-guys-round-one-vocal-mic episode exemplified, mandolin genius Chris Thile and his fiddle, banjo, guitar and double bass colleagues are as at ease rattling through a bluegrass breakdown or providing an a cappella Clancy Brothers-style reading of The Auld Triangle (one of their contributions to the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis movie) as they are creating the Beach Boys-and-beyond brilliance that is Familiarity, one of several items played here from their new album, The Phosphorescent Blues.

Another of the new songs, I Blew it Off found fiddler Gabe Witcher playing judicious drums, a recent addition to the band's palette, and more established numbers Movement and Location, with its irresistible, banjo-driven momentum and downright catchy tune, and the slightly Kurt Weill-like, nightmare-ish Another New World, emphasised the quintet's telepathic togetherness and their ability to make stopping as one on a sixpence somehow just as exhilarating as their hairpin bend, heart-in-mouth improvisations.

Wired to the World,

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Rob Adams


Events like this one emphasise, if emphasis is necessary, Celtic Connections' extensive reach both in terms of the musical styles the festival incorporates and its marketing effectiveness. Four continents were represented onstage - Europe, Africa, India and Australia - with a fourth, North America, being implicated, and if the music occasionally settled on a comfortable plateau rather than developing towards creative peaks, there was much to enjoy from all the performers in a packed auditorium that had its front seating cleared for something close to a mosh pit and the standing areas upstairs fully occupied.

Each half of the concert was essentially split into African and Celtic sections, although flautist Michael McGoldrick was an effective go-between in the first half, joining the Cameroonian singer Coco Mbassi's social commentary-cum-physical celebration set briefly for a natural sounding Afro jig before fronting an accomplished big band that merged an Irish front line with a bolstering brass section and a rhythm team that included the marvellous Parvinder Bharat on tablas.

Malians Songhoy Blues positively effervesced in their efforts to bring a Bamako Saturday night to Glasgow with a front man who oozed personality and directness. Their guitar, bass and drums teamwork is extraordinarily tight and inter-communicative and in paying homage to their late countryman Ali Farka Tour�, they also captured the sounds of Chicago and deeper south blues with a looser kind of Malissippi primitivism.

There's nothing primitive, however, about Treacherous Orchestra, whose sophisticated, impressively staged and dramatic performance brought waves of fiddle, pipes, whistle and accordion motifs rolling over impactful rhythms in an invigorating finale designed for - and achieving - maximum audience excitement.

JD McPherson

O2 ABC, Glasgow

Jonathan Geddes


JD McPherson mentioned during this that he'd missed Burns Night by one day. Truth be told, that was the only off-target occurrence at this gig, as the Oklahoma native dipped into his bag of rock n' roll tricks in exhilarating fashion.

It is easy to point at his music and cry revivalist, but given the passion involved the show come across fresh and dynamic, not looking backwards. Great rock n' roll should not date, after all, and McPherson's tunes are so infectious as to spark the most staid dance floor into life, performed with such sheer energy even the stone-hearted would tap their toes.

There was material from his 2011 debut Signs and Signifiers that possessed a glorious swagger - Firebug's plucked from Sun Studios riff, Northside Gal's sashaying pop and Country Boy's rockabilly, mixed in with covers of Bo Diddley and a shimmying take on Billy Boy Arnold's I Wish You Would, plus new tunes.

Those selections, from the upcoming Let The Good Times Roll record, do not indicate a change in course, although are possibly even more honed than before. It's still fast, relentless stuff, while the odd slower number did let McPherson show off more of his voice. His band, too, deserve every superlative going, and more besides. Jimmy Sutton was a demon on the double bass, but the entire group, on guitar, keys, drums and saxophone, whipped up a storm, letting the newer likes of the stomping Bossy and the good time blast of Head Over Heels arrive with style.

Nothing showcased that more that the main set-closer of Wolf Teeth, here performed as a drawn-out epic that took the breath away. A tremendous display.

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino,

O2 ABC, Glasgow

Keith Bruce


Boasting a name longer than one understands racehorses are permitted, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS) hail from the heel of the boot of Italy in Puglia and sing in a mixture of Salentino and modern Italian. Their presence in the city for the first time is precisely what makes Celtic Connections special. As well as a moving contemporary song about the migrants perilously arriving in their country today (its title translated by leader Mauro Durante as One Way Ticket), the sextet, joined for some of the set by a very lovely dancer, play traditional dance music that made the rows of seats installed in the venue an unnecessary impediment.

With three very different and very fine singers in their number as well as virtuosi on pipes, whistles, button accordian, fiddle, bouzouki and tamburello, CGS are like a Mediterranean version of the high energy Quebecois groups we have seen and heard in previous years. Durante's party-piece of tuned feedback on a solo for tambourine and Shure SM57 microphone was a first in my listening experience however.

If CGS are hot, support act Complete are effortlessly cool. A sharply-suited acapella quartet from South Africa, who have been mentored by Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Joseph Shababala, they too are in the city for the first time, and it is unlikely the festival will contain anything more multi-cultural than their version of My Yiddishe Mama, or their take on Gaelic waulking song.

And if the showstopping I Love My Beautiful Woman is available as a download, I hereby instigate a campaign for our new favourite boy band to have the Valentine's Day Number One.

Nils Lofgren

Glasgow City Halls

Stuart Morrison


Nils Lofgren was celebrating forty six years as a professional musician as he and his 'band' multi-instrumentalist, Greg Verlotta, took a stroll through material from a remarkable career. At 63, Lofgren has spent much of said career playing for others. As a seventeen year old, he found himself in Neil Young's Crazy Horse, working on After the Goldrush and Tonight's the Night. He has also, of course, spent much of the last three decades touring with Bruce Springsteen, so this was a rare opportunity to see him in such intimate surroundings.

Surprisingly, he started by playing a harp on Too Many Miles, before being handed his scarf -bedecked electric guitar and the show took off. The sounds he managed to rest from his guitars, both electric and acoustic, were astonishing and with Verlotta backing him on keyboards, trumpet and guitar, it was difficult to remember that there were only two of them up there.

The songs ranged from the achingly beautiful Miss You C, a lament for E Street saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, through the Tijuana tinged Rusty Gun, to the guitar pyrotechnics of Keith Don't Go. In between, we had the remarkable Dream Big, in which Lofgren built the looped backing track using a walking stick, the harp and tap shoes. In fact Greg Verlotta's tap chops were displayed in both Mud in Your Eye and I Came to Dance, the latter climaxing with both men tapping themselves to a standstill, earning a standing ovation for their efforts.

He encored with Springsteen's Because the Night and Shine Silently, bringing to a close both a fabulous show and a master class in how this rock and roll business should be done.