While it might have seemed an unusual venue for the Celtic Connections crowd the Concert Hall worked just fine as the musicians transformed it from a formal setting into a casual evening with music from a bunch of companions who all happen to be superb musicians. There were (I’m pretty sure) 16 musicians with 7 featured singers. I won’t attempt to list each number but will pick out my personal highlights.
The band opened with a fast tune – unannounced, but sizzling, which left everyone eager for more – and they were followed by Tim O’Brien who was, as always a delight. Ruth Moody of the Wailin’ Jennys beautifully sang Nest from her album and a Jennys tune, Asleep at Least switching neatly from guitar to banjo. Eddi Reader was a crowd delight with her perfect voice; she started with a Burns song before singing Declan O’Rourke’s Love is the Way and introducing Declan himself who received a rousing reception, as a home-town boy should before he went into Galileo.
Aly Bain led the amazing ‘band’ - although it is almost silly to count musicians of their calibre as merely band members – through a set of tunes before turning the stage over to the great Karen Matheson who triumphed with Si Kahn’s Aragon Mill which Karen noted she had learned from Andy Irvine.
The extraordinary Raul Malo came next and his two songs here were, for me, the highpoint of the night. He opened with JD Souther’s You’re Only Lonely making me feel that JD had written it for Raul and then blew me away with a version of Every Little Thing about You. Raul Malo’s voice over Jerry Douglas’ lap steel and the astonishing Michael McGoldrick’s uillean pipes was a perfect experience for me in what was a powerful night of music. Tim O’Brien wrapped up the first half with a singalong version of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land to honour Guthrie’s centenary.
Eavesdropping at the interval I heard that some thought last year was better, some thought this year was much better. And someone else was…bored. Bored?! Please.
The second half started with a rippling Jerry Douglas resonator solo followed by Bruce Molsky’s 2 lovely old time songs – I only wish I could have worked up the nerve to introduce myself to him – followed by Raul crooning, as only he can, Around the World, the theme to Around the World in 80 Days a choice that puzzled many. Perhaps it was the mention of County Down? All the singers came out again, we had guitar wizard Russ Barenburg’s jazzy Hallowe’en Rehearsal which featured all the musicians . Phil Cunningham, who had only joined the tour the night before, gave us a lovely, wistful Cajun flavoured Lake Charles Waltz just before Karen Matheson again triumphed with Diamond Ring. The band then ripped into Frankie/The Crossing before the encore when Paul Brady and Ciaran Tourish joined the multitude for a Raul Malo led romp through Hank Williams’ classic Hey, Good Lookin.
It was a great evening for music and it is hard to convey how amazing musicians were throughout. Guitarist John Doyle was both rocksteady and imaginative, a hard combination he carried off superbly. The fiddlers – Aly Bain and John McCusker, occasionally joined by Tim O’Brien and Bruce Molsky – were both sweet and tough. Danny Thompson on bass was, as expected, magisterial and perfect. Tim O’Brien, Russ Barenberg and Bruce Molsky played (I think) 5 or 6 different instruments amongst themselves switching around without a care. Phil Cunningham switched between accordion and piano with Donald Shaw and drummer James Mackintosh was a subtle yet constant and necessary presence.
I thought it was a night of exceptional music and also great fun. Bring on next year
Thanks to Denis Finnegan for the set list.
Review by Sandy Harsch. Photography by Ronnie Norton