The 2017 Celtic Connections festival is opened with a brand new face to the festival – Laura Marling, the English singer songwriter of immense pedigree and commonly regarded as “the greatest songwriter of her generation” visits the festival for the first time to team up with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jules Buckley.
With arrangements throughout the night by the immensely talented Kate St John amoung others, this was going to be a memorable night from the moment Karine Polwart’s voice breaks the anticipated hush of those collected before her.
With introductions from Roddy Hart as MC for and a message from Donald Shaw, organiser and Artistic Director of Celtic Connections, complete, the night starts with a wonderfully unique, half spoken, half sung address to Donald Trump on the day before his inauguration in the US.
Karine Polwart reminds us of his modest Scottish roots and his attachment to the piece of rock from where his mother left to find a new life in America, and in doing so, delivers the nation their 45th president.
‘Cover Your Eyes’ is a warning both to us seated in the auditorium and to Trump himself that he has a responsibility to cast away the unpalatable traits of the past and forge a new path of hope, and that we have the responsibility to hold him accountable in his every move, set the scene for a quote mesmerising night of emotion and beauty.
Her next song is a tribute to the 11- year-old girl Susan Maxwell, who whilst travelling home from her tennis lesson in the village of Coldstream, disappeared without trace.
‘Half a Mile’ is a story of the search for this little girl and the hope and desperation such a situation brings; “and the trucks still roll by…..” perfectly captures the image of a body lost by the roadside and never found.
Rachel Sermanni and Adam Holmes combine to bring us the “toe tapping part of the night”, a tongue in cheek remark from Sermanni as she finishes a stunning duet of the ‘Banks are Broken’ with the barest of accompaniment.
They finished their short set in magnificent form and to rapturous applause with Holmes leading on ‘Oh My God’.
Next up is Aziza Brahim who brings her West African, Cuban and Mexican influenced sound to the stage; the Spanish based Saharawian artist lights up the show with ‘Lagi’, a beautiful blend of vocal, drum and jazz infused guitar added to the eclectic feel developing in the hall.
Cara Dillon maintains the standard of excellence with her traditional Irish touch, more familiar to the Celtic Connections family, opting for simple flute and piano accompaniment, punctuating her first song and full orchestral accompaniment on the second.
Then to Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys who, after a PA issue, which took the entire audience by surprise and quite obviously gave the band a start they could have done without, perform two wonderful songs typical of their bluesy roots bluegrass blend of American roots music, which wins the audience over with ‘Everything Changed’, and becomes the true “toe tapping” moment of the night.
And to finish of the first half of the night, we are treated to two wonderful songs from Declan O’Rourke and the endearing warmth of the Irishman is welcomed and embraced enthusiastically by the Glasgow audience.
‘Gallileo’ fills the auditorium like a film score and ‘Sleive Bloom’ finishes his short set, a story of late night travelling through the mountains and contemplation of life and its jarring moments.
And so to Laura Marling, with very little chat between her seven beautiful songs, she is forgiven the lack of dialogue as the content and emotion within each more than compensate.
Utterly mesmerising from start to finish, I am unable to take my eyes off this apparently fragile figure who delivers a vocal and lyric of such strength and honesty that I am not going miss a second of this experience.
Opening with a suite of four songs ‘Take the Night Off/I Was an Eagle/You Know/Show’, the blend and connectivity created by Kate St John’s arrangement for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Marling’s fingerpicking guitar style fills the expectant and charged room.
With ‘Sophia’ and her cover version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ being the highlights of the night, she engages momentarily with the audience before she finishes her stunning set: “In the couple of days I have been in Glasgow I’ve managed to read a little bit about your history, you all probably already know it so I won’t go into it, but you guys were proper rebels eh?….” and with a flutter of applause at this she then adds “…..This song is called ‘Goodbye England’;” cue laughter.
A most memorable night to kick of Celtic Connections 2017.
You can listen to part of the performance here on BBC3 http://bbc.in/2iV2GzU or look out for the televised version, which goes out on Sunday 29 January. Not to be missed.
Words: Bobby Motherwell
Photos: Tim J Gray