The Glasgow folk, roots and traditional music festival welcomes Dick Gaughan and Giant Sand
That mighty oaks grow from little acorns is such a cliché that I should be expelled from the NUJ (if I were a member) for even contemplating using it here, but this over-familiar metaphor perfectly summates Celtic Connections’ meteoric rise over the last 17 years.
Having started life as an unlikely attempt to liven-up the quiet post-Christmas period in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s schedule, the festival has blossomed into one of the most vibrant, engaging celebrations of folk, roots and traditional music anywhere in the world.
Back in 1994, Celtic Connections took place exclusively in the Royal Concert Hall but now the tunes are spread across 14 venues and 18 days, and this year the festival features a whooping 1500 acts – although with just a weekend to spend in the so-called ‘City of Love’ (well, it is the home of the Glasgow kiss) your correspondent is forced to choose wisely from this year’s action-packed programme, which includes star turns such as Tom Jones, Mike Scott and Northern Ireland’s favourite son, Brian Kennedy.
Few performers embody the Celtic Connections spirit like Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan. Born in Glasgow to an Irish father and a Highland mother, Gaughan grew up in Edinburgh before moving to London and, in 1971, recorded his classic debut album No More Forever. And he’s been writing, recording and gigging ever since.
Friday’s show at Oran Mor, in Glasgow’s trendy West End, is a special celebration of 40 years of Gaughan’s music and his unashamedly socialist politics. ‘The great thing about getting old is I don’t have people telling me I’ll be a conservative when I’m older any more,’ Gaughan smiles before launching into 'Thomas Muir of Huntershill', a haunting paean to the eponymous Scottish reformer and friend of the United Irishman.
Gaughan is a folk guitarist in the Woody Guthrie mould – Hank Williams is another influence – but his music and his passions are undeniably Celtic. Whether singing about Wolfe Tone or the Jacobites, the gravel-voiced songsmith mixes erudition and entertainment in his tales of Scottish and Irish history, while his own opposition to injustice, prejudice and poverty in all its forms is always stirring, never preachy.
Openers ‘What You Do With What You’ve Got’ and ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ set the tone early – uncompromising, impassioned and packed full of foot-tapping hooks, much to the sizable crowd’s delight.
If the first half is raw and feisty, the second is positively relaxed in comparison. Formerly a member of critically lauded bands such as Boys of the Lough and Five Hand Reel, Gaughan is joined by a seven piece band, including drummer Jim McDermott, guitarist Stuart Nisbet and three piece backing vocalists the Bevvy Sisters, for the last hour of his set.
Gaughan and friends even play a couple of ‘pop songs’ towards the close. Thankfully it’s not ill-advised covers of Brittany or N-Dubz but a soulful run through of the Stones’ classic ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and a lively take on Joe South’s timeless ‘The Games People Play’.
The night, like so many others in his celebrated career, ends with the beautiful, iconic 'Both Sides of the Tweed'. First recorded in 1981, Gaughan’s song about the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England is now a traditional standard – just like the man who wrote it.
If Dick Gaughan is no stranger to Celtic Connections, the following evening’s offering – Giant Sand – certainly are. Hailing all the way from the deep South, these alt-country stalwarts have never played the festival before and, initially at least, their brand of pared back Americana seems more suited to the dry heat of singer Howe Gelb’s native Tuscon than the uninterrupted deluge of a Saturday night in the west of Scotland.
Formed way back in 1985, Giant Sand were one of the founding fathers of the new wave of Americana that became popular around the turn of the millennium. But while the likes of Wilco have gone on to play stadiums and Calexico, who started life as a Giant Sand spin-off, have achieved critical and commercial success, Howe Gelb and his band have built up a small, if solid, following without ever really troubling the hit parade.
Despite suffering from a heavy cold, Gelb, who lived in Galway for a spell, leads this current incarnation of Giant Sand – comprised mainly of Danish session musicians – through note perfect tales of whiskey, gambling and women that owe more to Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers than Kenny Rodgers and Garth Brooks.
The material, much of it drawn from last year’s Blurry Blue Mountain and its 2008 predecessor Provisions, provides the perfect vehicle for Gelb’s wry lyrical witticisms and his trademark southern drawl. Meanwhile songs such as ‘Inner Flame’ showcase his undoubted songwriting prowess, tying together complex emotions and lively evocations of time and place.
One of the reasons Celtic Connections has been so successful – and why it’s such a great festival – is its ability to appeal to so many different audiences. The overlap between the crowd at Dick Gaughan and at Giant Sand seems virtually nil but the fans at both are equally enthusiastic.
A visibly emotional Gelb signs off with a song dedicated to everyone back in Tucson in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting (‘It’s been a rough week, we’re still trying to put the pieces together’) and a promise to drop by again real soon.
Whether he does or not remains to be seen, but for now it’s not hard to see why so many folk are still nuts about Celtic Connections. Check out the Celtic Connections website for more information on how to support the festival and on visiting Scotland.
Peter Geoghegan attended Celtic Connections courtesy of Visit Scotland.