Celtic Connections: Eddi Reader and Leeroy Stagger

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Kings Theatre, Glasgow 
Wednesday, January 30th 2019


Glasgow’s venerable Kings Theatre seemed a fitting venue for the return of the ever-popular Eddi Reader to the Celtic Connections festival, Glasgow’s amazing annual sharing of music from all over the world. But first, we had a Scottish version of a transatlantic session as the packed King’s audience welcomed Canadian singer songwriter Leeroy Stagger to the stage to perform his unique blend of folk, blues and tradition, based simply upon two musicians on guitar and banjo.

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Leeroy introduced each song, telling us the story of how it came about and why they were performing it. They were simple songs with simple lyrics, sharing tales in a familiar old way of sharing stories that has been practiced across the globe in every clan or tribe. An amazing adherence to tradition, and yet somehow also a new, alternative take on things, encompassing, as is popular today, ideas of rebellion through music; a rebellion towards a new world of love and light. And indeed his soulful music succeeding in generating a feeling of love in the auditorium, a feeling taken up and built upon as Eddi Reader and her band strode on to the stage to begin their performance.

The ensemble of eight consisted of flute, accordion, piano, guitar, drum, double bass – an exciting array that promised much – and all presided over by Eddi herself in a striking red dress, which she commented on as she addressed us and told us how glad she was to be performing in the well known King’s theatre in her own home town, a town where she holds a well-earned special place in the people’s hearts. The city, and city life, were at the forefront of her stories that were set about in each of her songs. The old Celtic music with its sensual sound and simple lyrics were profound from the first song with the band coming to life behind her tremendously emotive vocals. The solos flew by on flute and violin and danced in and out of her melodies in a most attractive way.

The evening was marvellously produced and performed, each song touching upon a new emotion; there was partying, terrible sadness, lots of joking. Music to dance wildly to, music that represented high life, low life, tunes that would have fitted right in to any venue, from a cosy pub to a giant arena. All with Eddi always rising far above it, singing with a magical quality that held us and enchanted us. Her stories too were captivating, all the more so because of being a part of the performance and told in such a personal way that you could have no doubt of the reality of the life being represented in this glorious two and a half hours of sheer entertainment.

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Yet again, an evening like this creates a connection between a large live audience and graceful, generous artists who want nothing more than to heal the world through the love generated by simple and beautiful act of performing and sharing music. It feels like a privilege to share their heartbreak and their joy. It feels like this kind of evening is one of a kind but it is great to realise that music happens everywhere, every night, all over the world. And that’s what Celtic Connections is all about.
Reviewer: Daniel Donnelly

Reviewer: Daniel Donnelly

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Celtic Connections: The Once and Mike Vass

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The Drygate
Glasgow
Friday, January 23rd 2019


The Once and Mike Vass set sail from Nova Scotia and Nairn to bring home tonight’s
audience a grand haul of songs. Mike Vass opened the show with his first ever performance as a singer heading up a band. He is already, of course, well known as a composer, Malinky fiddle player, sailor, teacher and musical boat blogger of some renown. These latest songs constitute an autobiographical project transmitted in very emotionally engaging music which was characteristically well arranged for his chosen band of trumpet, cello, bass, keyboards and drums. In songs where the words matter, some are a bit thin on tunes, and some tuneful songs lose the impact of the words, but Vass’s songs strike just the right tune/word balance.

Of course it’s hard to hear everything at a live gig, but what I heard, I liked e.g. ‘I was only right to touch the tiller lightly’. There’s more to singing than the words and the tune, though, and with Mike’s confident stage presence and easy rapport, he might consider upping the emotional investment, as he becomes a more seasoned singer. He could do worse than studying The Once, who have been singing together since 2004. They have developed a very different autobiographical style which I found refreshingly honest and original, but on which my companion wasn’t so keen. It’s horses for courses, I guess. In terms of an imaginary Beaufort scale of emotional engagement, Mike would be a calm Force 2 or 3 (this comparison is maybe a bit unfair because in Vass’s songs the instruments were doing the emotional talking).

The Once, however, would be a brisk Force 5 or 6. Their music is full of strong melodies and close harmonies, more from a country/folk rock/roots tradition. But it was in the stories which precede some of the songs where the band, and its charismatic singer Geraldine Hollett, were most affecting, with both tragic and uplifting stories powerfully told, and later, sung. In contrast, Phil Churchill’s humour was refreshingly quirky. Since the concert ‘By the glow of the kerosene light’ has been going round my head. It’s a country song by fellow Newfie, Wince Coles, but it tells the kind of desperately sad story which did and still does sometimes happen. The Once sing it marvellously, but their own songs are
much more hopeful. ‘We are all running the same race’ is typical, and declares that ‘the
brightest dawn is yet to come’. Even if it isn’t, it’s nights like tonight which make it all
worthwhile. Something very strengthening is born of nights in winter singing songs which don’t shun sadness yet remain hopeful.

Reviewer: Catherine Eunson

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Celtic Connections: LoLanders featuring Fraser Fifield and Oene van Geel

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Royal Concert Hall
Glasgow
Tuesday January 22nd 2019


This concert was made possible thanks to ‘Going Dutch’, a project put together by the UK
and Ireland-wide Jazz Promotion Network with funding mainly from Dutch Performing Arts, and an additional contribution from Creative Scotland. Great gigs like this do indeed all flower from a creative partnership and a good idea meeting a source of funding. The concert marked the culmination of some days of playing together, but the project will continue for 6 more months, so it marks a significant investment in the future. Moreover Fraser Fifield is influential in more than one musical sphere in Scotland, so we can look forward to hearing the benefits of what will happen in the next 6 months for a long time to come. The Scottish musicians involved are Fraser Fifield on low whistle and small pipes (though he is also known as a saxophonist), Graeme Stephen on guitar, and Hardeep Deerhe on tabla. Their Dutch LoLander comrades are Oene van Geele on viola, Mark Haanstra on bass, and Udo Demandt on percussion. At least half of the band are also significant composers. So an unusual and very impressive line up, and one which pulls together an already entwined history of collaborations from its members. At the outset I should say how deftly the tabla and percussion fitted together, producing a marvellously lively foundation for a rhythm section which, along with the bassist, sounded as if they had been playing together for years.

The evening had started with the Scottish based Fergus MacCreadie trio who took us on a
journey full of melody and exploration. The drums of Stephen Henderson and the bass of
David Bowden combined securely and effortlessly and each number provided easily enough melodic charm and harmonic interest so that, as a listener, I felt more than happy to follow the subsequent explorations wherever they wanted to go. Maybe a trio can afford each other space, as keyboard, bass and drums have little need to worry about crowding out the others, or maybe these musicians are just very adept at storytelling. Either way this was the perfect band to introduce the sextet who were to follow. Every number they played was a winner, so it’s also difficult to pick out especial highlights. But just to prove I was there and I was listening, I’ll pick out the unison bass and keyboard melody line introducing the second number as being noticeably effective, as well as the three nameless new numbers before the warmth and spaciousness of ‘An Old Friend.’ Do yourselves a favour and either buy the album ‘Turas’ or go and see the Fergus McCreadie Trio soon. Or even better, both.

The only slight bump in the concert’s road came at the very start of the LoLanders own set, when I missed the spaciousness and easy confidence of what had come before as the energy of the bigger band seemed to jump up like a slightly over friendly dog. But it all settled down very quickly. Or was it that I woke up? Probably both, and the inventiveness and variety of the LoLanders set soon proved, and remained fascinating. It also helps when you have a really charismatic personality on stage like Oene van Geele. He relished every chance to attack a syncopated beat, his solos took flight and his spontaneous jumps landed perfectly. This liveliness certainly acted as a visual focus for the group, as did the drums and percussion. And let’s not underestimate the visual drama, the dance, if you like, of making music. Much in the music was mercurial as in, ‘Chase it, catch it’. Spoiler alert – it got away!

Now I’m not a guitar expert, but Graeme Stephen’s instrument looks and sounds like quite a character. Never once did you wonder why there were so many notes happening. Instead Stephen showed his compositional sense and feeling for the drama of the music throughout. Fraser Fifield’s low whistle and Oene’s viola were also a vibrant combination. Fifield also occasionally and very successfully brought out the small pipes and with them came a couple of tunes from the traditional repertoire. All in all this was a great energetic display of wonderful jazz from a well mixed group of instruments, throughout which the inventiveness and lyricism of Fifield’s low whistle shone. I hope to hear more from them all again soon.

Reviewer: Catherine Eunson

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Celtic Connections: The Big Music Society

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Mackintosh Church
Glasgow
Friday, January 18th 2019


The audience which came in from the Maryhill snow to the purple-lit Mackintosh Church soon realised they had entered a very special world. Pìobaireachd, Ceòl Mòr, the ‘Big Music’ is the classical music of the pipes and is like an independent state within a world. Define classical music anyone? Ask Alan MacDonald, really funny as well as knowledgeable in his introductions. According to him classical music ‘raises great expectations that a tune might break out.’ Pìobaireachd music starts with the measured statement of a tune, then repeats it with increasingly complex embellishments and variations before returning to it at the end. In the past the performance of this music has been rather constrained by convention, but Alan has done a great deal to bring it to life, and to contemporary audiences, as have the Big Music Society. In retrospect it was perhaps a shame that we didn’t hear a complete solo pibroch in the fantastic acoustics of the Mackintosh church. But the arrangements were substantial and mostly worked marvellously. One of the most effective was ‘Gabhaidh sinn an Rathad Mor’ a tune which has certainly been about a bit, and which progressed in good style to a grand conclusion, seeming to pick up both the Penguin Café Orchestra and the Vatersay Boys along the way. And if there is anything more exciting than the sound of the pipes, it is the sound of the pipes deferred, so that halfway through a tune you were already enjoying, comes the sight of a couple of guys hoisting the pipes on their shoulders and blowing up the bags in preparation, so you realise everything is about to go up a significant gear. Marvellous stuff, and with a double bass adding just enough to the foundations to support the whole musical structure.

The concert was called ‘Seinn (Sing) air a’ Phìob’ because in Gaelic pipers sing on their pipes. Singing and piping are inextricably linked and indeed singing ran throughout the concert, with the piping coming mostly in the second half. In the first half Maighread Stewart and Ingrid Henderson gave a stunning set of songs and solos with voice and harp. What a partnership they are with the harp sounding so refreshing and colourful you could almost taste it. In general, for me it was in the singing that the greatest highlights were to be found. The song about Deirdre of the Sorrows, the first song in praise of whisky, and in the second half the charismatic singing of Alan Macdonald stood out memorably. Not only were the audience treated to Maighread and Alan’s singing, Mairi MacInnes was there, and her rendition of Maol Donn was unforgettable. Then Kathleen MacInnes appeared as a surprise guest, bringing her soulful impact into the world of the concert. I enjoyed it all and, indeed, if I had to go to exactly the same thing tomorrow I most certainly would. Calum MacCrimmon and John Mulhearn deserve great praise for initiating and, more importantly, growing and maintaining the Big Music Society, making the event what it was. Long may it, and they, flourish.

Reviewer: Catherine Eunson

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