Celtic Connections Glasgow 3rd & 4th February 2018

It's Saturday night at the most distinguished Oran Mor on the Byres Road in the West End of Glasgow and Sam Outlaw is feeling good, in fact feeling very good indeed, he tells us. Having played the previous evening to a full house in Aberdeen he seems genuinely taken back that the venue this evening is also heaving. Oran Mor is a converted church which was built in the 1860’s for the spiritual well being of the growing population of residents settling in West Glasgow. These days it caters for the social needs of many as one of the most prominent music venues in Glasgow, combining restaurants, bars and event rooms, having been converted to its current status between 2002 and 2004.

Explaining another reason for his particularly tiptop mood Outlaw continues "having played over a hundred dates with my full band over the previous months, it’s a joy to perform on stage with just Molly and this guy from London and perform songs we want to play and the way want to play them." Molly Jensen, a recording artist in her own right and a fellow Californian of Outlaw’s, has been a regular in his touring band over the past few years as a co-singer and equally talented guitarist and the Londoner that Outlaw tongue in cheek refers to is Matt Park, a multi-instrumentalist who adds stunning pedal steel and electric guitar to tonight’s show.  In fact, anyone regretting the absence of a full band on stage is swiftly won over a few songs into the set with note perfect - and vocal perfect – deliveries of It Might Kill Me, Diamond Ring and Angeleno. Very much the revivalist not only in his music but also his style, Outlaw’s is decked out in short sleeved cowboy shirt, red neck scarf, black trousers, cowboy boots and white Stenson. Jensen and Park are also suitably attired, in appearance the trio could have been plucked off the stage from The Grand Ole Opry in the 1960’s.

Featuring material from both his current album Tenderheart and Angeleno, released a few years back, the songs come hard and fast with She’s Playing Hard To Get Rid Of, Tenderheart, Ghost Town, Bottomless Mimosa all getting an airing. Also included are the Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman classic Juanita and Ryan Adam’s Oh My Sweet Carolina, while noting that Adams had recently said some nice things about him. That said its Jesus Take The Wheel (and Drive Me To A Bar) that gets the biggest cheer of the evening, the sentiment seems to particularly strike a chord with the Glasgow audience. His one hour twenty-minute set, interlaced with humorous banter between songs, concludes with Outlaw off stage, in the middle of the audience, guitar in hand and singing his final notes, much to the approval of the surrounding crowd. He could be accused of being chameleon – and most probably would agree himself – but what can’t be denied is his striking vocal, song writing talent, phenomenal stage presence, absolute attention to detail and on the evidence of this evening, his ability to provide a hands down killer display of classic country music.

The support act is Justin Osborne, frontman of South Carolina band SUSTO. Osborne’s solo set in support of Outlaw is most impressive but the full bands performance on the following night – their UK debut – in support of Sam Baker, is on another level. The venue is the quite stunning Mackintosh Church at Queens Cross, the only church in the world designed by the famous Scottish architect and artists Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Impressive as the venue is, playing on an alter to a full house of punters seated elbow to elbow on church pews, is not the ideal environment for a young psychedelic indie folk band. However, they play a blinder even if their sound echoing around the church felt somewhat out of character. Included in their set are Hard Drugs, Cosmic Cowboy and Jah Werx, all from their current album & I’m Fine Today, which continues to earn consistently impressive reviews in the music press. Cigarettes, Whisky and Wine from their debut album together with some newer material also feature.

Sam Baker’s two hour set, which follows, finds the Texan songsmith abandon his familiar acoustic laid back delivery in favour of a more electric and percussion driven sound. Playing electric guitar on this tour and joined on stage by percussionist Mike Meadows, he treats the full house to a journey through his impressive back catalogue with Steel, Iron, Odessa, Broken Fingers, Waves and Angel together with Margaret, Summer Wind and Land Of Doubt from his latest album of the same name. It’s certainly a departure from the previous occasions I had seen him where his delivery was closer to the gentle and delicate studio treatment of the songs. However, the genuine passion and delightful lyrical quality of the songs remain. My colleague Paul Mc Gee’s more detailed review of his set the previous evening at The Naul, Co. Dublin is also on our live review page.

And so concludes another whistle stop trip to the beautiful city of Glasgow and Celtic Connections which continues to be one of the premier music festivals staged in Europe. Great also to meet up with local music loving friends Iain Mac Leod, Paul Hughes, Murray Anderson and Mike Ritchie whose Radio Show hosted every Sunday on Celtic Music Radio was deservedly voted Best Radio Show in the U.K. in a recent Americana UK Readers Poll.   

Review and photographs by Declan Culliton