The award winning Glasgow based music festival was back again this January, bigger and better than ever. The cross-genre, multi-venue extravaganza showcased a little bit of everything, from hot new talent (Rachel Sermanni) to guitar legends (Richard Thompson), folk heroes (Sharon Shannon) to Indie giants (The Walkmen). With so many fantastic evenings of music you could hardly be expected to keep up with it all, so here are a few of the Music Team’s highlights from this year’s festival.
The Pulse of The World feat. Zakir Hussain
Thursday 13th January
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Zakir Hussain is hardly a household name. With so many renowned musicians and groups performing at the festival, it might have seemed an odd choice for the opening night headline act to be an Indian tabla player. The tabla is itself a relatively unknown instrument, and those who do know what it is (roughly, a set of variously sized hand drums), they may well be curious as to how a ‘glorified bongo player’ could be handed such a pivotal role.
I can assure you, however, that Hussain is nothing short of a virtuoso. I could mention some of the musicians he has worked with (George Harrison, John McLaughlin, Yo Yo Ma), but frankly, Hussain’s brilliance is only truly appreciable the old fashioned way: sitting down and listening to him work his musical magic. The tabla is not percussion as the West knows it, at least the way Hussain plays it – he does far, far more than keep rhythm. The variety in timbre and pitch is truly astounding, meaning Hussain is much more than a passive member of any ensemble – he dictates the flow of the music – it leaps and springs from his remarkable fingers. As the central character in the night’s performance, his delicate touch allowed him to direct his fellow musicians, without dominating or stifling them.
For this was not a one-man show. Three fellow Indian musicians accompanied Hussain, along with half a dozen from the Scottish and Irish tradition. It was this headlong collision of two musical cultures that made the night the perfect introduction to this year’s festival. The fact that this blend of styles was carried off so effortlessly was what made this night a success. It was a celebration of two vastly differing traditions finding common ground in the roots of their music. It was a celebration of world music, and a reminder that Scotland has no small place within it.
Thursday 20th January
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
When considering Celtic connections, a festival priding it’s firmly rooted traditional Scottish folk domain, the words genre-blind and Basque accordionist don’t spring immediately to mind; in fact they seem wholly alien and radically nonconformist to a concept all to commonly reduced to roaring ceilidhs and Gaelic pop. However, accordion especialista Kepa Junkera pioneers an aspect of the festival that would take a fair few tries to rummage up if Celtic Connections was a round on Vernon Kay’s Family Fortunes; that of international folk and world music.
Making his festival debut in 1999, Kepa has since returned to grace Glasgow with a magic touch for revitalising his native traditions with the aid of his trusty trikitixa (a Basque diatonic accordion with a wealth of heritage under its belt.) The Royal Concert Hall being the stage set for his return, the question arose over whether Kepa would bring a fresh approach to his live stage performance, deviating from his prior visits to Scotland’s live music hub. Not failing to disappoint, Kepa came armed with his secret weapon; Leioa Kantika Korala, a 15 strong female choir adorned in multi-coloured harem pants ready to unleash a oscillating sway in time to their harrowing harmonies. Reminiscent of classic Bollywood, the choir was received with varied degrees of trepidation by the notably maturing crowd the concert had attracted, bringing an almost public school choir dimension to the carnivalesque fiesta theme the music strived to evoke.
Despite this aesthetic and oral pleasure cocktail, the real magic of Kepa’s performance lay in his cheeky-chappy approach to audience participation. Undeniably, Kepa is a man who clearly enjoys what he does and has no qualms about showing it. Toying with audience expectation, the Basque accordionist approached the performance as one would approach an experimental jam session in a mate’s garage over a few tinnies and a common idealist notion for creating something wholly individual. Carrying his concert off the beaten track of expectation, Kepa used his spotlight as a means for indulging in masterful accordion solos. Beginning his score with mellow, understated folk songs, audience members twitched with the anticipation of an explosive climatic encore courtesy of the jig-friendly ‘Bok-Espok’. Admittedly, without the aid of a faithful programme, the language barrier between the Basque musician and his majority English speaking audience created a degree of distance as he failed to communicate the story behind his music, leaving the crowd uncomfortably awkward and gawping at his attempts to connect with them. Nevertheless, his crowd interaction had undeniable results managing to secure a standing ovation from an all seated auditorium and encouraging a daring few to throw a few shapes in the aisles.
Challenging the sceptics in his transformation of the music of Basque mountain shepherds into an inspiring Spanish fiesta, there is no doubt that Kepa’s genius and individual innovation championed the Celtic Connections once again. The audience were left stomping in time to the frivolous folk and swaying with the esoteric harmonies as they exited, wondering what he would bring to the table on his next visit to the tartan nation.
Friday 21st January
Old Fruit Market
Anais Mitchell’s most recent project was always going to sound daunting on paper. After all, a “folk opera” based on an ancient Greek myth does not necessarily appeal to the masses. Hearing it live, however, was a truly unique experience. In the relaxed setting of the Old Fruit-market, surrounded by fairy lights and candle lit tables, Mitchell’s music created an other-worldly atmosphere.
With the help of a large cast of singers, musicians and even a narrator, Mitchell shares her own modern-day adaption of the ancient myth of Orpheus, who embarks on a journey to the underworld to retrieve his lost love Eurydice, her part sang by Mitchell. A vast range of musical genres are utilised throughout Hadestown. Again, on paper, Mitchell’s fusion of jazz, blues, gospel and ragtime can sound off-putting; however she has created something that works astoundingly well.
Unlike the recording, the live performance included quite an in-depth narration between each of the songs; a feature that felt somewhat unnecessary, as Mitchell’s lyrics speak for themselves. One of the main successes of the album version is that each song blends together in a flowing progression, rather than existing as a succession of entirely disjointed songs.
For some, Mitchell’s girlish vocals are perhaps a little too sweet to listen to for an entire night, and so input from the other cast members – with their own distinctive voices – was warmly welcomed. We were privileged to the rather more powerful female vocals of Persephone, the booming bass of Hades and, the particularly outstanding sorrowful tones of Orpheus.
Her youthful voice, however, should not be mistaken for immaturity in her song writing talents. Mitchell’s play on words is continually witty and creative, “The River Styx was a river of stones” and aside from the lyrics, it is remarkable how Mitchell has combined so many genres and yet managed to create something that actually works rather well.
Hadestown is much larger scale and more epic than her previous works which, though brilliant, are entirely conventional folk records in their format. However, while it was a novel experience to witness a “folk opera” for an evening, I could have quite happily listened to Mitchell with no backing and only her guitar.