Celtic Connections

Kris Drever/Rhiannon Giddens/Calahen Morrison/Dean Owens

Keith Bruce

four stars

ON the evening that Royal Conservatoire of Scotland student Michael Biggins became the first pianist to win BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the year, in the competition’s 21st year, Celtic Connections provided an object lesson in just how far roots music can take you in the space of a song.

The starriest name on the bill was that of Rhiannon Giddens, out of South Carolina, now domiciled in Ireland, and here singing movingly in Italian with her new partner in life and in music, Francesco Turrisi, as well as from the songbook of Sister Rosetta Tharpe – a valued resource at this year’s festival. Recorded at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, the duo’s selection of material was as on point as all Giddens’ work: heartbreak, death and transition, alongside the hope of survival.

At home in the Old Fruitmarket, Calahen Morrison was actually many miles from his roots in New Mexico, but opened with his own take on the tragedy of the Iolaire, the ship that sank off the Isle of Lewis in 1919, drowning many soldiers returning home from the First World War. Making the journey in the other direction was Scotland’s Dean Owens, whose featured early composition New Mexico has blossomed into a link-up with musicians from Tucson, Arizona for his forthcoming album, Sinner’s Shrine.

For this “as live” link up, realised by Garry Boyle of Slate Room Studios, Owens and double bassist Kevin McGuire were in Pencaitland, Calexico’s Joey Burns was in Boise, Idaho (to escape the virus, it was implied) and trumpeter Martin Wenk in Berlin. It was all a far cry from the American players’ last appearance at the Festival, with Calexico four years ago, and coincident with the inauguration of Donald Trump. If Owens’s new songs are often concerned with celebrating his exciting new musical partnership, After the Rain had exactly the sentiment this year needs.

It was not, however, the finest Covid-era contribution to this selection box. That had come from Shetland-domiciled Orcadian Kris Drever right at the start of the evening. Joined by bassist Euan Burton and Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott on drums and keyboard, Drever’s set was mostly one of his best loved tunes including Where the World is Thin and, in a neat link with Morrison later, Scapa Flow 1919. But the highlight was a new one, and surely the best Scottish addition to the liturgy of the current trauma. Hunker Down deals with many experiences of 2020 that everyone will recognise, and has a tune that nicely reworks a handful of good old blues guitar licks. A triumph from Drever and an instant classic.