Let's start by making new connections!
Welcome to my new Artyness column! Every fortnight I will be sharing a little flavour of the musician’s life and work, along with some thoughts and reflections on wider aspects of that most mercurial of artforms - music. To be invited to write about my passion, on home turf that’s bursting with talent, is an opportunity I’m immensely excited to undertake, so as well as offering an insight into the joys, challenges and fun of making music for a living, I’ll also be flagging up excellent projects, people and lots of great new music.
It’s timely that the column should begin now, as I, like many Scottish folk musicians, never quite feel that the New Year has got truly underway until Celtic Connections is once more in our midst. Gigs may have started again, and teaching commitments of regular lessons and classroom sessions relaunched with the new school term, but such is the cherished place of this world-renowned festival in the folkie calendar, that for many of us it is what really heralds the new musical year.
Along with the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards - affectionately known as The Trads - offering in December a year-end reflection and celebration of the previous twelve months of musical achievement, so Celtic Connections ushers forth a fresh chapter. That our year is book-ended by two such superb events is testament to how profoundly things have progressed in the Scottish folk scene, and the cornucopia of music that is Celtic Connections is nothing short of glorious. Featuring over 2000 artistes in 300 events, it is a feel-good cascade of musical riches on an abundant scale.
With concert performances from intimate to epic, workshops, talks, commissions of new work, an extensive schools programme, as well as the legendary Danny Kyle Stage and festival club, the twenty-six-year-old gathering is now one of the biggest and most widely-loved both in Scotland and further afield. For two and a half weeks from mid-January, south-bound trains are packed with Highland musicians and many hundreds of music-lovers who now make an annual trip to Glasgow for a much-needed tonic of heart-warming music in these cold, dark days.
This year I decided to try something new. Across one weekend of the festival is the Scottish Showcase, where folk, trad and roots music industry delegates from around the world check out our homegrown artistes. An important element of the Showcase is the Trade Fair, a one-day exhibition event where musicians, bands, agents and others can promote their music, products and services; essentially an opportunity to network, meet and chat with representatives of venues, festivals, folk clubs, cultural organisations and media from around the world, secure new contacts and hopefully, in turn, bookings and business.
With cds, books and several projects to promote, I reckoned the Trade Fair could be interesting new ground for me, and so I booked a table and began the process of making and gathering props and items with which to create an attractive layout and backdrop. Hearing that some bands have been known to hand out whisky and gin miniatures, and even make cocktails on their stand to entice passers-by, I wondered how I could compete with such inducements. Sweeties would just have to do!
An early start to set up in the Royal Concert Hall meant no late night for my friend and I on our first evening in Glasgow. We had been to see a wonderful show featuring many top Highland musicians and Gaelic singers - a live stage presentation, with visuals, of the music from the video game The Bard’s Tale – and we allowed ourselves just a couple of wee nightcaps before turning in. This proved to be a wise move as the Trade Fair was non-stop, with a constant through-flow of delegates to talk to and share projects with, as well as catching up with lots of old friends on a similar mission.
It was a terrific day, full of interesting discussion, and by close of play we were satisfyingly tired and happy to see, as we packed up, that the suitcases would not be nearly so heavy going home, having managed to off-load much of the merchandise we had brought down with us. And all the sweets had gone!
Rewarding ourselves with another concert that night – this time the famous Transatlantic Sessions – we revelled in the wealth of talent from both home and across the pond. A full house of thousands lapped up the superb playing and sublime voices; here was the ultimate showcase of mature folk and trad musicianship, very much at ease in its own cultural skin.
As usual I returned to Inverness from Celtic Connections feeling buoyant, inspired, glowing with what seems like an injection of replenishing vitality… and ready to embrace the new year with a spring in my step!
(First published by Highland News & Media 8th February 2019)