Oisín Kealy sees what is on offer at this year’s Celtic Connections festival

The Swell Season – Glasgow City Halls – 16/01/2010
Marketa Irglova, looking very Celtic in a green dress more Riverdance than rock and roll, kneels down with a toy keyboard beside Glen Hansard, past lover and current musical soulmate, and the two begin on playful ground with Fallen From the Sky.

Winsome and whimsical, the accessible pop of this song may seem to confirm suspicions of twee from their detractors, but in no way prepares for the ferociously impassioned turns taken tonight, mostly through the astounding musicianship of Hansard.

The two could not be more different; he a born showman and she a tentative ingénue, but it works, Irglova’s sweetly artless vocals leveling the ragged valleys of Hansard’s. Their chosen instruments speak volumes about this relationship. Hansard’s long suffering guitar, shot through with jagged holes and frayed lacquer (the same one he can be seen playing in their breakthrough film Once four years ago) may not be beautiful, but it has a forceful immediacy that well compliments its owner’s own power. Irglova is most comfortable by the grand piano, not hidden behind but draped over it, delicately framing the band’s sound by way of suggestion rather than command

The new material is for the most part strong, beginning our introduction to it by way of Low Rising, a smooth, soulful number that owes as much to Van Morrison as to Marvin Gaye, an influence Hansard acknowledges by singing a bar of Sexual Healing during the bridge. The catchy and purposeful Feeling the Pull is prefaced with a typically rambling exposition by Hansard on its origins, but thankfully he is as good a public speaker as a musician and these digressions add to the charm of the evening.

Irglova is given centre stage for If You Want Me and Fantasy Man, but the uncertainty in her voice does little to pacify the downbeat nature of these songs. Just as uncertain is her attempt to emulate Hansard’s storytelling, but while Hansard’s sense of humour enhances his numbers, her overly-earnest explanations have a slightly weakening effect.

Hansard is left alone on the stage after this, giving us something more robust. With the usual loquacity, he relays a touching story about an old woman he encountered in Chicago who lost her son in 9/11, before stepping out in front of the microphone to sing Say It To Me Now completely unplugged.

As it reaches its crescendo, Hansard’s delivery reaches blood vessel-busting intensity, every vein on his forehead raised in desperate trails, the tendons in his neck as taut as the strings on his guitar. He follows this with an equally fiery rendition of Leave, though this time with the aid of amplification.

The band returns, though tonight is still about Hansard. A Tim Buckley cover with both singers on one microphone goes down particularly well, but is followed by a rare slump with the laboured and lead-footed Go With Happiness. They regain their passion, thankfully, with Mind Made Up and High Horse, the latter calling for some impressive audience participation. As the first of their five-song encore they play the crowd-pleasing, Oscar-winning Falling Slowly, but it is the finale of Red Chord, a song from Hansard’s long established band The Frames, which proves the most appropriate, as he segues into the old Irish traditional song, The Parting Glass. “Goodnight and joy be with you all” he sings, and he has certainly done his best to make that come true tonight.

Laura Veirs – Oran Mor – 17/01/2010
Four sets of legs walk on to the stage, but there is a fifth member of Laura Veirs’s band tonight, one inside her stomach. Six months pregnant, she is a brave woman to kick of a two month tour in a different continent, though having heard how Martha Wainwright went in to labour on stage she feels ready for that eventuality. Luckily for this kid, Laura Veirs has the perfect voice for a lullabye. Its timbre is completely untrained, rather child-like and distinctly American — most likely coming from her days playing riot grrrl music at college — yet still melodious, and it has a cartoonish air about it. In fact, it calls to mind what might be the singing voice of a character from The Moomins, Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson’s comic and cartoon. Like the cartoon, Veirs’s music too can be outwardly sweet yet still harbour shadows. She seems to have an affinity with Scandinavia anyway, settling on Copenhagan as the city she would want to go into labour in if it must interrupt her tour.

The set opens with an ode to bassist Carol Kaye, a pleasant finger-plucked melody on guitar, while the band join in for a blast of four-part harmony recalling the knit-in-the-woods choral efforts of Grizzly Bear or Fleet Foxes. There is more vocal interplay between the band later with Life is Good Blues, layers of off-sync “puh-puh-pum”s creating a surround-sound affect, like a choir of crickets in the undergrowth.

This gig is really about new material, with only a few tracks from previous albums, and most older songs only going back as far as one album — for a woman on her seventh release, the scope is a little disappointing, but she never misses the mark with the songs which she does play. At odds with her guileless, innocent way of singing, she is surprisingly confident and friendly, encouraging a clap along for traditional number Cluck Old Hen and splitting the audience into a two-part choir for To the Country.

Whether by herself or with the help of the room, Veirs’ music is a softly enchanting trip. Hopefully motherhood will continue to provide inspiration for this hidden treasure.

Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – 17/01/2010
After an instrumental introduction, in which the instantly recognisable bass figurings of Drake’s bassist Danny Thompson can be heard, tonight’s first guest Robin Hitchcock flounces on stage with matching polka dot shirt and guitar. A gentle reconstruction of Parasite is an absorbing start, distorted guitar worked to excellent symphonic effect. Time of No Reply is the next song, Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch relaxed but apt in his delivery, followed by Vashti Bunyan. She looks effortlessly cool as she walks on stage, but her voice trembles and sinks a little into the much more purposeful strings of Which Will, a little too tentative to make comfortable listening. It is up to Lisa Hannigan to rescue the stride of the evening with At the Chime of a City Clock. Hannigan is absolutely in her element here — with a voice milked from moonlight she explores the sinister paths of Drake’s melody with neck-prickling authority.

An instrumental One of These Things First is given an orchestral flourish through Zoe Rahman’s piano, which initially makes up for the lack of vocals, yet as the song becomes increasingly mired in expressive timing, the performance perilously approaches the realm of lounge music. This vacuity is remedied by Krystle Warren’s slowly swelling take on Time Has Told Me, a muscular, blues tinged performance. Her voice has a familiarity about it that is impossible to place, though somewhere between Nina Simone and Joan Armatrading is a fair attempt; It has the texture of a voice truly informed by time.

A disarmingly soulful version of Poor Boy with Teddy Thompson at the helm is another winning interpretation. Aided by the girl-group vocals of Hannigan, Warren and musical director Kate St. John, Thompson leads the song in a soulful makeover, a great degree of propulsion lent to the song by the house band. Way to Blue is performed with determined faithfulness by the trio of Green Gartside, Teddy Thompson and Lisa Hannigan, each taking a verse for their own. This works perfectly for Thompson and Hannigan’s parts, but their effort is diluted by the strained vocals of Gartside. After this, the previously shaky Bunyan returns in fantastic form for a charming, folk inflected song by Nick’s mother. Warren’s acapella take on Deem Me So High follows, while Teddy Thompson’s Riverman has all of its edges sanded off by the infusion of a shuffle rhythm through the drums. The effect is pleasing if a little lightweight, unlike the ensuing highlight.

Accompanying herself initially with only a portable harmonium and the stomp of her foot, Hannigan’s version of Black-eyed Dog begins messily engrossing, melodically unclear but visually astounding as she rocks possessed over her instrument. As the band enters, you start to see it for the true session-song it is, especially once it finds its centre around a driving Celtic guitar rhythm. The applause after a false ending is interrupted by a rollicking coda, but rather than ceasing it integrates, clapping in time as Hannigan repeats the chorus plea “I’m growing old and I wanna go home”. The Mercury-nominated songstress’s charm offensive shows no signs of stopping — this is the finest tribute given to Drake tonight. She takes a sheepish curtsy, modesty at odds with the revelation we just witnessed, and my heart drops, wishing I had pockets deep enough to house her.

The rest of the night is pleasant, but not transcendent. Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren’s Pink Moon duet is endearing, singing it to each other rather than us, and all the better for it. A finale including all of tonight’s singers taking on Voice From the Mountain, gathered Feed The World-style around the front of the stage, is a fitting end. Despite a few missteps tonight, its hard to leave without feeling a modicum of that inspiration yourself.


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