Celtic Connections

Rhiannon Giddens with the Celtic Blues Orchestra

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

five stars

ABSOLUTELY no disrespect intended to any of the other very fine arrangers of orchestral scores whose work we have heard at Celtic Connections this year, but Monday night’s concert was in a class of its own.

Of course a large part of that was down to the magnificent voice and musicality of Rhiannon Giddens, whose association with the festival goes back to her membership of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but that was only part of it. There was the quality of the band, which was conducted by Greg Lawson and not his Martyn Bennett-performing GRIT orchestra, but had something of the same power and verve. With players who are members of each of Scotland’s concert orchestras and none, it was no surprise, for example, to see Su-a Lee leading the cellos and taking a solo on the title track of Giddens’ debut solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn.

That song, which Giddens found through Nina Simone, was written by Charles Aznavour and has English lyrics written by the Belgian man who brought Countdown to British television, and Gabe Witcher’s arrangement made its French chanson roots gloriously apparent. Witcher, who plays fiddle with the Punch Brothers alongside mandolin wizard Chris Thile, has provided Giddens with a book of scores that perfectly match each song. So her own Lullaby, which she recorded with the Kronos Quartet for their Folk Songs album, was give an arrangement that recalls Nelson Riddle or Billy May’s way with the Great American Songbook, while other numbers had a deluxe backing more akin to Gamble & Huff’s MFSB or Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra.

This band was just as capable of becoming a vast trad ensemble for Giddens’ re-write of Factory Girl, however, and when it came to her showstopper of Odetta’s Waterboy the soundworld was as much that of Bernstein or Stravinsky, adding another layer of quality to an already outstanding performance.