It’s Sunday night, just after six in the evening, and right now there are more people on stage at the Stevenson Hall in Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire than are sitting in the auditorium. Many more.

On a raised seat behind a lectern, John Logan, the Conservatoire’s head of brass, timpani and percussion, has a conductor’s baton in hand and is guiding an orchestra of more than 50 students through his arrangement of a tune more usually played on guitars and drums.

Listening intently to Logan’s right is broadcaster, singer and organiser of tonight’s event Roddy Hart. To his right, and to the left of the orchestra, Hart’s band The Lonesome Fire are playing along, adding grit to the sweetness of the strings.

And in front of all of them, Simon Neil is standing singing. It’s a song the Biffy Clyro singer knows well. He should. It’s one of his own. Neil is fully committed to the vocal, his whole body moving as he sings, his fingers tracing arabesques in the air above his head as he delivers the words. Then, as he finishes, the orchestra takes over and the music begins to swell and swell, filling the room before reaching a crescendo.

At the front of the stage, Hart and Neil are grinning at each other at the all-encompassing size of it. “You’re just too good,” Logan tells his orchestra when the music finally stops.

There’s a short post-mortem. The band worries about how it should best marry up with the orchestra and how the song should end.

The Herald: Roddy HartRoddy Hart (Image: free)

And then everyone takes a breath and goes again. This time a cover version. Neil is singing a song written by his friend Scott Hutchison, who died by suicide in 2018, aged just 36. It is a classic track from Hutchison’s band, Frightened Rabbit.

If anything, this combination of song and orchestra and Neil’s voice sounds even better.

It is now 6.30pm and it is fair to say that rehearsals for this year’s Roaming Roots Revue concert are going well.

This weekend, everyone on stage will reassemble, this time in front of an audience – two audiences actually, as they will perform tonight at the Barrowlands and tomorrow night at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – for this year’s Revue.

“Over the last decade, Roaming Roots Revue has become one of Celtic Connections’ flagship shows,” says Donald Shaw, the festival’s creative producer.

“It’s a great example of how the worlds of indie and folk artists have collided here in Scotland and created a growing sense of confidence and mutual respect on our music scene. The talent Roddy brings in when he builds this show each year is always incredibly exciting and unique.”

READ MORE: REVIEW Chris Thile/BBC SSO, Celtic Connections, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This will be the 12th Revue. Artists as diverse as Kris Kristofferson and Karine Polwart, the late Rab Noakes and KT Tunstall have all found themselves sitting on sofas onstage waiting their turn to sing over the years. Past Revues have celebrated the work of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the music of Laurel Canyon and, in 2019, the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

This year’s theme is a bit closer to home. Songs of Modern Scotland acknowledges this nation’s contribution to pop, rock and alternative music over the last 40 years.

“The real inspiration for this year was realising we had never done a Scottish night and thinking we need to rectify that,” Hart admits as we sit in the auditorium during a break from rehearsals. “I just thought – we have such a vibrant music scene. Everything from Frightened Rabbit back to The Associates. And further back.”

For once, the singers who will gather for this year’s Revue are all homegrown. Hamish Hawk, Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell and Roddy Woomble are just some of those taking part. There will also be a couple of surprise guests.

“I just thought – let’s keep it Scottish and let’s celebrate what we do as a nation and who we are as musicians.”

Hence Simon Neil’s presence this evening. Does it feel a little strange looking around on stage and not seeing the rest of Biffy Clyro, I ask him?

“Yes,” he says, laughing, “I feel completely naked without my guitar and without the boys, to be honest. But that’s part of the excitement. Roddy has cultivated a beautiful event every year at Celtic Connections and it’s just grown organically really. And the themes he picks, the song choices, are really next-level. It’s well considered.

The Herald: The orchestra in rehearsalThe orchestra in rehearsal (Image: free)

“But it’s definitely different for me. For a start I’ll be clothed. I spend most of my life with my shirt off.”

Well, it is January in Glasgow. “We’ve done the Arctic Circle in October!” he points out. “We played this festival up in Norway in Tromso. They were smoke-drying their fish at the back of this festival and we were on at about 11 at night and it was minus six. When we came off we had to get the tinfoil on.”

Neil is only able to make tomorrow night’s gig, but it will be extra special for him because of the chance to sing a Frightened Rabbit track.

“It’s way more important than me singing my own songs. I feel a sense of responsibility,” he says.

He smiles, thinking of Hutchison. “I feel very honoured to have known him. He was that typical self-effacing Scotsman. He didn’t know how talented he was. He didn’t know the genius he had and I just love it when someone like that just made music for the purest and truest reasons. And the sad thing is he doesn’t get to see how much his music is being celebrated.”

As Neil heads off into the night, rehearsals continue. The orchestra, mostly fourth-year students, are note-perfect on songs recorded before many of them were born. “Three weeks ago some of them would never have heard some of the songs,” John Logan suggests.

As the evening progresses other Scottish musicians drop in to go through their numbers with the orchestra. Emma Pollock, Del Amitri’s Justin Currie, Matt Hickman, aka Brownbear, and Louis Abbott, Kevin Brolly and Sarah Hayes from Admiral Fallow all come and go. Some sing their own songs. Some sing cover versions. Some do both.

How does Hart choose who will sing what? It’s what he thinks will work, he says. Or just what he would like to listen to himself.

“Sometimes I think, ‘I would love to hear Emma Pollock singing Gerry Rafferty.’” This year it will come to pass.

READ MORE: Poor Things didn’t let down Alasdair Gray or Glasgow, we did

“Roddy is a great MD, so he’s very good at picking things that suit you. He’s never thrown me any curveballs,” Justin Currie points out.

“There’s a very fine line between a night that celebrates great songwriting and a night of karaoke,” Hart admits, “and what we try to do is reinvent songs, have different singers take on different moments; things that are unexpected and that isn’t just a big old singalong. That has those moments where the dynamic takes people to a different place collectively.”

It’s also a chance to introduce new voices to the audience. Like Matt Hickman’s. Born in Largs, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter has been musically active with his band for the last decade. But last year’s album Demons took things up a notch for him. Sellout shows and a nomination for Album of the Year at the SAY Awards followed.

That said, when he was asked by Hart to do Roaming Roots Revue it was something of a surprise, Hickman admits.

“When I saw all the names taking part I thought, ‘Are you sure?’ It’s pure imposter syndrome. But I’m just up for the opportunity.”

The Herald: Justin CurrieJustin Currie (Image: free)

He is. When the chance comes to sing with the orchestra on a 1980s classic, Hickman nails it. Hart can’t wait for Hickman to sing it to the Roaming Roots Revue audiences. “Roaming Roots at its heart is about identifiable songs for the audience,” Hart says. “The theme of Roaming Roots was always the thing that brought the audience in the door. I learned that early on and then once I had them in the door I’d say, ‘Here’s someone you might not have heard of before. Like Rachel Sermanni 10 years ago.”

Hart is the ringmaster for the whole event. “You’ve got to bring it back to Roddy,” Emma Pollock suggests.

“He started this over 10 years ago and it’s just kept going. He’s such a good curator and he’s got a real passion and his knowledge of the music scene is so fantastic. He always has the ammunition to come out with a new idea every year and make it fresh. It’s a really special one this year to celebrate this country’s output.”

Do we do that enough, Emma?

“I think over the years we’ve begun to. I think ever since the independence referendum – which is now almost 10 years ago – we have been aware of our country’s output and cultural significance as a singular country rather than as part of the UK. We’ve become much more aware of it as a source of identity and a way of defining who we are through our arts. You learn a bit about who we are through our arts rather than business.

“I think when you’ve got smaller countries it becomes interesting when you look at their artistic output. It defines something about how that country sees itself.”

READ MORE: Dr Brenda Page killing is focus of true-crime BBC Murder Trial

But in the lingua franca of pop can you differentiate a Scottish tune from everything else? Is there a difference?

“Yes there is,” Justin Currie believes. “If you turn on the radio and you hear a Scottish group you can usually spot them straight away. It’s something to do with the accent. And the melodies are different from bands from Ireland and they’re different from English bands. It’s very hard to define, but there’s a real flavour to Scottish music.

“I think there’s a link between things that you would normally think were incredibly different, like Simple Minds and Aztec Camera and Belle and Sebastian and maybe Young Fathers. There’s something that links it. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but it’s a weird flavour.”

OK, let’s posit a test case. Rod Stewart: does he qualify as Scottish?

“Not really,” Currie says. “He’s a brilliant songwriter. I always regret that he didn’t write more songs. But I don’t hear his songs being from anywhere other than the English folk tradition and the American blues tradition. And in the west coast of Scotland there’s not a huge amount of blues influence. There’s a bit of blues, but I think there’s a lot of country, which I’ve always felt comes through the Irish Catholic population in the west of Scotland. I think that really informs Scottish pop music. I think without that, Scottish pop music would have been quite different.”

Could it just be the accent, I suggest. Currie is not sure. “I always sang in an English accent until we went to America and I went into something maybe mid-Atlantic. I always felt Scottish accents – because the vowels are so short – are not great for singing in. But the Proclaimers proved me wrong.”

The Herald: BrownbearBrownbear (Image: free)

It took a long time for other Scottish artists to follow in their wake though. “That wasn’t a fashionable thing to do until probably the last 10, 15 years,” suggests Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott. “And now that’s just a Scottish thing.”

Abbott and his band mates Brolly and Hayes studied at the Royal Conservatoire, so tonight is something of a homecoming for them.

“I definitely felt some residual fear from back in the day,” Hayes admits.

I don’t think you’ll be getting marked, I suggest. “It does feel a bit like that.”

Abbott agrees. “15 years ago we would have probably been sitting in the orchestra, so I think it definitely brings back some of the anxiety from that period in our life.”

You wouldn’t know that from the rehearsal. Only 20 minutes before, I had watched them essay a version of Party Fears Two, the greatest ever Scottish pop single by the greatest ever Scottish pop singer, the late, great Billy McKenzie (says me). No pressure there. “We have changed the key several octaves below,” Abbott admits. But what could have been brave and foolhardy turns out to be a triumph.

And this is the joy of Roaming Roots Revue. It offers a fresh, thrilling take on the familiar. It is both a celebration and acknowledgement of music that was made in another time, another place, but which still speaks to us now.

And this year it all comes with a Scottish flavour.

“Scott Hutchison used to say that so much great music comes from Scotland because you’re forced indoors and it’s raining outside and all you’ve got is your guitar,” Roddy Hart recalls.

“And you’re sitting on the end of the bed and you’re writing and you’re dreaming about being somewhere else. And I think there’s a lot to be said for that. A lot of the music has that and it really appealed to me. It goes toe to toe with anything else out there and it always did.”

The Herald: Emma PollockEmma Pollock (Image: free)

Roddy Hart, Simon Neil, Emma Pollock, Brownbear and Justin Currie tell Teddy Jamieson about the Scottish music they grew up with.

Roddy Hart

My mum and dad’s record collection was full of Del Amitri and Deacon Blue. Things like Fellow Hoodlums by Deacon Blue I really loved as an album and it spoke to me as a young Glaswegian growing up. Talking about bottles of Tizer and Buchanan Street.

And The Blue Nile, where there was a mixture of everyday minutiae of what it was to be Scottish and the sights and the sounds, but elevating it to a level of romanticism which was always really interesting to me.

It was obviously influenced by American music but it was grounded in a very rainy Scottish sensibility that I just loved.

Simon Neil

I was born in 1979, so it was late 1980s when my ears were starting to perk up. I loved Vanilla Ice. All the greats. The Whole of the Moon is the first song that I remember that had this essence of Scotland in it.

I think there’s a melodic sense of what we do as Scottish musicians. The more you travel the more you can see that there is this identity in what we do. I think it’s in the delivery and the lyrics.

No-one likes a poser up here, so people need to bring the real deal. I think that probably runs through all Scottish music.

Emma Pollock

I think Simple Minds were one of the first bands that meant something to me. And I knew they were Scottish. The album Alive and Kicking, the one that a lot of people think is less cool, is when I got onboard. Which is typical. That was when Simple Minds went quite pop and a lot of early fans were disgusted.

I would get up in the morning and I would walk over to my hi-fi and I would listen to it on cassette. I absolutely adored that album and it became huge for me and my mum because she was a huge Simple Minds fan.


When I was about 15 I turned on the TV one day and Living is a Problem Because Everything Dies was on. Biffy Clyro. And someone said, “Yeah, they’re from Ayrshire.” I didn’t believe it. I didn’t know people from Ayrshire did that. To be doing this now with Simon is just mind-blowing because Biffy’s album Puzzle is the soundtrack to me being 15, 16.

Justin Currie

The local bands who were swimming about in the late 1970s were pretty s**t. They were doing Led Zeppelin, David Bowie covers, so the whole idea of being in a group was anathema to me even though I loved music because it was just full of w***ers, to be honest.

And then Postcard happened and Postcard made Glasgow uber-cool, because it was uber-cool. It was a masterpiece of situationist art or something.

I think it completely put Glasgow, and to an extent Edinburgh, which was already a bit cooler than Glasgow, on the map and people like me who were at school at the time flooded out of the school gates and started rehearsing and basically copied Orange Juice and Josef K.

Without that there’s a whole generation of people who I don’t think would ever have got involved with music. Most of the people I know who got involved through punk and post-punk are not really musicians. They were slightly bookish arty w***ers that didn’t really want to be rock and roll stars. But suddenly Edwyn Collins and Alan Horne made that cool.

Roaming Roots Revue presents Songs of Modern Scotland, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, tonight (Sunday).