Connect the Scots

Oisín Kealy & Lewis Porteous reflect on the highlights of Celtic Connections 2009

The careers of both Teddy Thompson and Martha Wainwright were always going to be haunted by their inherited dynasties.  Over a decade since their musical debuts, both on the backs of their parents, Martha’s voice is arguably foremost within her family. Teddy’s, however, does not have the substance to convincingly escape the shadow of his family tree.

Thompson’s band are as competent as they are dapper, but their sound is too tight to breathe. There is also a distracting sense of affectation in his stage persona, with his Johnny Cash impersonation reaching parodic proportions during ‘Can’t Sing Straight’. His voice, though decidedly American in texture, is pleasantly euphonious. Used to its strength with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’, it precipitates mass swaying and some localised swooning throughout the venue.

Wainwright’s guitar playing with opener ‘This Life’ is blend of delicate finger picking and decisive strumming, but nothing can distract from the authority of her voice. When unleashed, the sheer power of it is breathtaking, commanding absolute attention, with the transition from whispered to penetrating occurring seamlessly. It is hardly surprising, then, when she tells us of her recent foray into Opera, a revelation which earns a pantomimic display of reverence from the crowd.

This woman has performance in her blood; at ease with the stage at all times, she narrates her whims to us whether it be her sudden thirst for a beer or her decision to steal Thompson’s guitar. She soon invites Thompson onto the stage where they venture a rendition of The Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ with all the endearing preamble of a primary school talent review. The overall effect of the duet is winning and provides a brief respite from the largely heart-wrenching material – just brief enough for the audience to crave it once more.

Towards the end of the night she pulls out ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ with a wink, transforming a formidable string of expletives into a thing of raw beauty. The evening seems to close all too soon, though I see it is fast approaching midnight. Without a doubt, she could have kept us there until dawn.

It may seem odd that of all the artists capable of channelling and preserving Britain’s musical and cultural history, a beret-wearing Muslim expatriate would be the most willing. Then again, traditional songs have always played an integral part in Richard Thompson’s repertoire throughout his forty year career in the music industry, especially as one of the founding members of Fairport Convention.

If performing compositions from most eras of known musical history in chronological order, accompanied by just a percussionist (Judith Owen) and backing singer (Debra Dobkin — appropriately the wife of Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer) sounds like a ballsy, over-ambitious venture, that’s because it is. At least it was when the show was conceived, as by this stage, any doubts as to whether Thompson can recreate Gilbert and Sullivan’s orchestral majesty alone, on an acoustic guitar, have been  entirely dispelled.

Arriving onstage brandishing a hurdy-gurdy and launching into a spirited Medieval-era ‘Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene’, the folk-rocker displays his versatility from the off. Two numbers later, he performs ‘So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo’ a cuckolding song, sung in colloquial Renaissance Italian. Though the lyrics are indecipherable to unilingual audience members, the song’s purported subject matter is certainly familiar Thompson territory, as is that of ‘The Fause Knight Upon the Road’, in which a wide-eyed schoolboy randomly encounters the very embodiment of irrational evil.

The first half of the evening gels incredibly well, and Thompson is to be commended for forging his own distinctive imprint on tracks already recorded by his folky peers Bert Jansch and Steeleye Span. Though the second set, encompassing the twentieth century, proves less consistent, it is still intermittently thrilling, and even illuminating in  places. As he ends on a rendition of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’, complete with a choral Latin interlude, it is clear that no other artist could pull this type of show off. ‘1000 Years…’ succeeds greatly as a stop gap, but one gets the impression that it is slightly more satisfying for Thompson as a break from his day job, than it is a show for paying converts.

Now in its tenth year, Showcase Scotland remains instrumental in getting Scottish talent publicity, as the city becomes inundated with promoters. Despite the pageant-like aspect, the four acts manage to retain a sense of informailty and intimacy this evening.

First up is Bodega, a young folk quintet with a host of instruments, ranging from fiddle through accordion to bagpipes. The talent of this group as instrumentalists is striking, and their own composition, ‘The Midnight Tramp’ proves that they can write just as well. It is a swirling storm of a piece, with a fusion sound not too far divorced from the likes of Kíla, complete with some exceptionally impressive harp shredding.

Corrina Hewat appears on stage next, heavily pregnant, yet (she reminds us) eminently bookable, for a much more intimate set. Initially she is alone with just her harp, but is later accompanied by acoustic guitar. She plays her instrument in a curious manner, dancing ever-so-slightly with it and cycling through a host of facial expressions, as if engaging it in a secret dialogue, occasionally throwing the audience a complicit glance. She is a pleasure to watch perform and the music itself is entrancing, as is her sonorous voice combining with it to create a sleepy celtic pop.

Brendan Campbell has had a strange day, he tells us, having just dashed from the SECC supporting Keane — we won’t hold that against him. The only native Glaswegian of the night, Campbell plays your average folky-singy-songwritey material. His rapid finger-picking is quite good, but somewhat dampened by the output’s narrow scope.

Completing the bill is Fiddler’s Bid, with enough violins to feed an army. As their parts have little independence, the abundance of fiddles seems a little redundant, though displays their sheer volume of talent. They play a few feet-tapping reels and a couple of airs that make my eyelids close of their own accord, rounding off the proceedings nicely, though hardly with a bang.


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