With Celtic Connections drawing to a close, it’s up to nights like this to really cement the diversity of talent a city-wide festival can attract to its doors.
Up first is Edinburgh-raised Ross Wilson, aka Blue Rose Code, kicking things off with fresh cuts from his critically-acclaimed third album, 2017’s The Water of Leith.
Flanked by a full band of double bass, saxophone, piano and more, Wilson’s performance is both vigorous and fun; songs that steal moments of quiet introversion on record become warm and rousing at Wilson’s lively command.
He begins with a reimagining of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Acquainted with the Night’, picking over those cool and lonely lines with sultry acoustic guitar.
With his mellow, resinous voice deepening to earthier, mahogany tones or brushing over pretty, elevated harmonies, the John Martyn influence is clear and comparisons might be made to fellow Scotsman Lomond Campbell.
You can hear in those notes a long Glasgow winter, the coldest, peaty depths of highland lochs—but also the place between the isles where the sun breaks gold over the sea.
In all darkness and solitude, Wilson has found a sweet spot between soul and sadness, introspection dissolved in the communal, expressive potentials of jazz and folk, yet never afraid of alluring pop melodies.
Favourites like ‘Bluebell’, ‘Ebb and Flow’ and ‘Nashville Blue’ take us through moments of quiet sorrow and rising joy, so the crowd stare raptured or swaying gently to the soulful sax motifs and piano.
It’s a performance full of heart, sometimes Celtic or country-tinged, other times embracing full-on Sunday morning soul.
There’s an endearing moment where he brings his daughter onstage, beaming with pride.
Throughout, it’s clear that Wilson is enjoying every minute and that sincerity of connection really resonates in the audience’s reception; he even wryly remarks that he’s “never known a quieter crowd at the ABC”.
He’s a tough act to follow, but Norfolk’s queen of folktronica, Beth Orton, handles the role with casual poise, welcoming the crowd with a promise of “something different”.
Orton’s set up is typically sparse, with just herself, a guitar and Graeme McMurray’s bass accompaniment; the stage lights dim into eerie pools of white through the dense dry ice.
The focus, then, is mostly on Orton’s voice and the throbbing bass that earned her early ‘freak folk’ mantle, the residues of which are clearly heard on opener ‘Moon’ with its prominent bass riff and atmospheric solstice tremors.
The effect is entrancing, as Orton slips through ‘Wave’ and ‘Petals’ from 2016’s career-reviving Kidsticks—every affective turn blisters in the twist of Orton’s voice, set against a low ambient rumble.
Sometimes, though, in the minimalism it’s hard not to want some percussion or more of the electronic effects that flesh out Kidsticks’ eclectic, sparkly but also haunting atmosphere.
As the set warms up, Orton’s selections become increasingly career-spanning, as languid heartbreaker ‘Sweetest Decline’ leads us back to the acoustic beauty of 1999’s Central Reservation, every line swathed in sunlight: “She weaves secrets in her hair / The whispers are not hers to share”.
Orton’s majesty is understatement: her knack for trembling lyrics that dazzle with simplicity, her self-deprecation—apologising for being a ‘Sweary Mary’ and interrupting lines with minor blunders—and her ability to really sink into the mood of a track.
Her songs, she tells the audience, are really just “short stories with beautiful sounds”.
The crowd are mostly a typically older, Celtic Connections affair, and it’s clear most people have a deep and personal relationship with these songs, as the reception grows warmer with the set delving further back into Orton’s past.
I still remember how at a young age I stole my mother’s well-scratched Simply Acoustic compilation CD and heard ‘She Cries Your Name’ for the first time: there’s something lovely about how those romantic images and syncopated riffs splash across the years.
Tender tracks like ‘Blood Red River’ and ‘Pass In Time’ quell a temporarily restless audience, while sparkier numbers ‘Shopping Trolley’, ‘Concrete Sky’, ‘Mystery’ and ‘Call Me the Breeze’ indicate how Orton’s musical maturity sometimes involves a willing return to soft and rejuvenating innocence.
At times her voice is wavering, almost abrasive; but the unsettling effect feels appropriate to the bittersweetness in her songs.
There’s a beautiful moment where the ABC’s globe-sized disco ball is turned on and glimmers through the room during ‘Stars All Seem to Weep’.
Orton returns to the stage with an encore that involves the stirring urgency of ‘Stolen Car’ and closes on the hypnotic, reflective prettiness of ‘I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine’, drawing a teary sing-along from the audience.
It’s an evening of mixed emotions, songs about heartache wrapped in gorgeous folk tones; songs about recovery and learning to love the world again given the glister of melody and human connection.
January’s exhaustion feels perfectly saved by each performance, and I’m sure I’m not the only one leaving the ABC tonight feeling some much-needed catharsis.
Words: Maria Sledmere
Photos: Stewart Fullerton