Celtic Connections, Glasgow - 22nd to 24th January 2016

The annual Celtic Connections music festival took place in Glasgow from 14th to 31st January this year. Over 2000 musicians, both local and international, performed at a number of venues across the city. Among the many Lonesome Highway favourite artists performing this year were Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, The Lone Bellow, Aoife O’Donovan, Ethan Johns, Frazey Ford, Greg Trooper, Gretchen Peters, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Kimmie Rhodes, Lera Lynn, Lindi Ortega, Patty Griffin and Sturgill Simpson.

In recent years the festival has become part of the holy trinity of must attend festivals for the writer together with Kilkenny Roots and The AMA’s in Nashville

With inexpensive weekend flights it seemed the ideal incentive to kick off the January blues with a visit to the beautiful city of Glasgow for a weekend of music and merriment. The weekend selected included a choice of gigs from Lindi Ortega, Frazey Ford, Tim O’Brien, The Lone Bellow, Jason Isbell, Bella Flek & Abigail Washburn among others. Choices indeed.

The festival also offers the opportunity to renew friendships with so many UK & Northern Ireland fellow travellers that all attend the Kilkenny Festival every year.  

Friday night’s gig of choice involved a visit to the O2 ABC in Sauchiehall Street to catch Frazey Ford. Having witnessed the breezy, funky and founder member of The Be Good Tanya’s play an excellent show at Whelan’s last October expectations were high for a repeat performance. Joined on stage by the same musicians as the Dublin gig her entourage also included a horn section consisting of saxophone and trumpet. She more than equalled the Dublin show with a super cool set of southern soul beautifully executed vocally and featuring mainly material from her excellent 2014 album Indian Ocean. Particular highlights were the album title track, Firecracker and Done.

Support act for the Friday show was British Nigerian soul artist Ola Onabuke, quite well received by the punters and with talented musicians backing him. The impression, however, was that the material was quite repetitive and samey.

After a fairly lazy Saturday afternoon, it was off to the Oran Mor venue on The Byres Road to catch The Lone Bellow. The converted Kelvinside Parish Church, built in 1862, features a concert venue and two separate bars and is one of the most striking music venues in Scotland, retaining the majority of its original features and architecture.

The Small Glories were the opening act. Consisting of Canadians Cara Luft, better known as a founder member of The Wailin’ Jennys, and J.D.Edwards, they combine sweet, tight harmonies, slick guitar picking and old time claw hammer banjo playing to great effect. The highlight of their set being a stirring rendition of Way Down Yonder in The Minor Key of Billy Bragg & Wilco fame. A very impressive start to the evening.

Brooklyn three piece The Lone Bellow certainly delivered to an expectant and enthusiastic crowd. From the opening Green Eyes and A Heart of Gold to their encores Here Comes The Morning and Slip Sliding Away the reaction of the full house was a party-like singalong. Drawing on material from their two albums the up- tempo Heaven Don’t Call Me Home and Cold As It Is worked particularly well emphasising Zach William’s impressive vocal range to perfection.

Next up was The Scotia Bar in Stockwell Street. Established in 1792 and renowned as the oldest pub in Glasgow, the Scotia has been one of the foremost music pubs in Glasgow, particularly catering for the vibrant folk scene on the 1960’s. The Humblebums, otherwise known as Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty were regular punters. Timber beams, brass furniture and an open fireplace feature in the narrow passageway which barely allows two customers to pass without yielding a right of way. The Sunday afternoon music session on offer most certainly did not have its origins in the folk genre. Local band Three Card Trick’s repertoire consisted of a set of covers, impressively delivered it has to be said, including Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, Santana and Cream among others, delivered at an ear bleeding decibel level. When the only practical means of communicating with the person sitting across the table from you is by text, it’s probably a mite too loud.

With ears ringing it was decided to pay a flying visit to Mc Sorleys Music Bar a mere ten minutes walk away in Jamaica Street to catch local singer songwriter Daniel Meade. Unfortunately time pressure only allowed a short but highly enjoyable visit. Meade, who also fronts his band The Flying Mules, played as part of a duo and delivered a laid back and rootsy set.

Upwards and onwards to the O2 ABC for the Jason Isbell gig and what promised to be the highlight of the weekend. This evening’s opening act was Nashville based rhythm and blues artist Anderson East. Accompanied by a seven piece band, which included a horn section, East wooed the crowd with an impressive set, possibly closer to pop than blues, but delivered with great gusto and enthusiasm despite being hampered by one arm in a sling as a result of a broken collar bone.

What followed was nothing short of breathtaking. It’s not often that one attends what can be only described as the perfect gig but this was surely as close as you can get. Isbell, without doubt the premier songwriter of his generation, together with his by now customary backing band, delivered a blistering set consisting in the main of material from his two most recent albums, Something More Than Free and Southeastern. Also included was probably his strongest work with Drive By Truckers in Decoration Day, Outfit and Never Gonna Change.

He reminded the audience of his first visit to Glasgow as a young man with the Truckers which, after far too much whiskey ended up with one member of the band mooning on stage to the audience. ‘Things are a little different these days’ he joked.

Having followed Isbell’s career in his previous band, with the 500 Unit and his current band, it’s particularly noticeable that he has matured beyond recognition both as a songwriter, musician and performer. The quality of his material this evening was matched by that of his vocal and his fellow musicians whom he saluted and introduced individually on two occasions. Every vocal and each instrument were clearly audible, a credit to the sound engineer, making the occasion complete. Particularly noteworthy at the show and at the other concerts over the weekend, were the sound quality and the impressive lightning systems.

So many highlights in the set list to mention from the opener Palmetto Rose to the encores of Elephant and Super 8 but the most memorable musical moment of the weekend was his delivery of Children of Children from his current album, a heartfelt and beautiful song dedicated to his mother. "I was riding on my mother’s hip, She was shorter than the corn, All the years you took from her, just by being born."

A fitting finale to another cracking Celtic Connection weekend made particularly special by the great company from Glasgow, Belfast, Isle of Lewes, Poole, Morecambe and Ballymena. Looking forward to recapturing the same fun and music quality at Kilkenny Roots at the May weekend.

Footnote: Jason Isbell subsequently received Grammy Awards for Best Album and Best Song of 2015.

Review and photographs by Declan Culliton