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Celtic Connections 2023: Mary Chapin Carpenter and others

The song circle at The Theatre Royal encapsulates connection.

For my final concert of the 2023 rendition of Celtic Connections, I was thrilled to attend the Song Circle, a collaborative concert which included Mary Chapin Carpenter, Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis & Robert Vincent. The performance took place at the Theatre Royal, a beautiful venue with an ample reception. Despite being built in the 1800s, following two devastating fires, it has been reconstructed to a modern standard not only in terms of its large entrance windows, but also in accessibility. After walking through a brightly lit bar area, I was guided to my allocated seat at the main amphitheatre. The hall, having maintained its old fashion design, served as a lavish concert venue and was filled with excited spectators.

Starting right on time, the vacant stage, which had been set up with diverse instruments and microphones in the shape of a semicircle, welcomed singer-songwriter Karine Polwart. Born in Scotland, Karine has a distinct musical style which often relies on the spoken elements of performance and leans into the connection between folk music and the natural world. After opening with a solo piece, she proceeded to introduce the second group, Julie Fowlis, a folk singer who primarily sings in Gaelic. Following her act, she invited Robert Vincent to the stage, a blues and country singer-songwriter from England, who in turn introduced the main star of the show, Mary Chapin Carpenter, American country and folk performer.

Once they were all on stage, they took turns performing songs together and separately, acting as back-up singers or audience members as they participated or observed. This was a format I had not yet encountered, and was surprised to realise that it worked very well, allowing a dynamic performance that embodied the festival’s motto of connection. It was a live representation of how music can unite people from different countries and musical backgrounds, allowing them to communicate through their art, not only to each other but also to an audience.

Overall, the show was a fantastic experience, and it showcased some amazing talent and unique styles. Some highlights included Karine’s beautiful song about a tree named Rebecca, which she presented as a love song (while playfully stating that she refuses to sing any conventional love songs), a Gaelic reinterpretation of the song Blackbird by the Beatles written by Julie Fowlis, and Mary Carpenter’s final song: He thinks he’ll keep her.

Furthermore, both the musicians on stage and the audience were visibly enjoying themselves, with the crowd often singing along much like the other performers were, and cheering loudly between songs. The concert ended with a standing ovation and the request for an encore, although it was denied by the venue as the lights turned on, indicating the end of the performance. This concert, while not the last performance of the festival by a long shot, was the perfect ending for my small sample of events. All the musicians were amazing, especially Karine Polwart and Mary Carpenter, and the friendly crowd, with their happy exchanges on their way out of the concert hall, truly encapsulated the beauty of the Celtic Connections Festival as a collective expression of love for music and people.

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