Sunday, 31 January 2010
Shared musical magic amid the merry banter
Transatlantic Sessions, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
As attested by the speed with which both shows routinely sell out, the Transatlantic Sessions are the longstanding jewel in Celtic Connections’ crown. This year, however, was exceptional even by the usual exalted standards.
Whether it was serendipitous chemistry, between the line-up’s mix of old lags and first-timers, or a particularly felicitous choice of songs – or perhaps the full moon – the musical magic conjured by 18 leading folk artists from Scotland, Ireland and America delivered the wow factor in spades.
In keeping with the “sessions” element of the format, most of the musicians remained on stage throughout, clapping, tapping feet and applauding in unison with the audience. Together with plenty of banter and craic – including the seemingly requisite doses of toilet humour from accordionist Phil Cunningham – this lent the proceedings a winning informality and an air of spontaneity, which belied the wealth of A-list musicianship on display.
A pair of early highlights came courtesy of West Virginia’s O’Brien siblings, Grammy-winning singer/multi-instrumentalist Tim and vocalist Mollie, whose name reveals their own Irish lineage. They brought the house down with a tremendous gospel-blues duet on
He Lifts Me, followed by Mollie’s breathtaking rendition of the old Terence Trent D’Arby hit, Cross My Heart.
As this suggests, the material overall ranged freely across traditional and contemporary, Celtic and Americana territory. Other unexpected treats were O’Brien frère’s down ’n’ dirty bluegrass re-shake of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe, with dobro maestro Jerry Douglas and guitarist John Doyle, and Eddi Reader leading a natty rockabilly arrangement of Boo Hewerdine’s Hummingbird.
Two absent friends were commemorated, firstly by Ireland’s honey-voiced Cara Dillon, singing John Martyn’s Spencer The Rover, on the first anniversary of his death. A female vocal line-up that also featured Capercaillie’s Karen
Matheson and ex-Nickel Creek starlet Sara Watkins, later teamed up on a heart-melting Talk To Me Of Mendocino, in tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle.
Dillon was in equally spine-tingling form for her other two contributions, Dougie MacLean’s poignantly homesick Garden Valley and her own stirringly evocative Hill Of Thieves. Watkins showed off her clear, curvaceous, vividly expressive tones in a romp through Jimmie Rodgers’ Any Old Time.
There was no shortage of powerful singing among the men, either, prime examples including a desolately raw-boned cowboy song, Leaving Cheyenne, from Bruce Molsky. Another was Darrell Scott’s Banjo Clark, a reworking of US traditional standard Old Joe Clark, in which his splendidly rugged, weathered voice presided over suitably bare-knuckle backing from most of the dozen or so instrumentalists present.
Talking of presiding, doing so over said instrumentalists was double bass legend Danny Thompson, underpinning it all with his uniquely muscular yet sensitive handling of rhythm and colour, while Douglas’s magisterial dobro work sonically reflected his role as joint musical director, along with Shetland fiddler Aly Bain.
No parade of Celtic or Americana music would be complete without the utterly tragic, as represented here by the fire-and-brimstone singing of Dan Tyminski (the voice of George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) in the murder ballad Wild Bill Jones, and Karen Matheson’s sublimely inconsolable rendering of Crucan Na Bpaiste.
While songs predominated, the instrumental cast also featured such luminaries as Mike McGoldrick on flute, whistles and uilleann pipes, festival director Donald Shaw on piano and accordion, guitarist Russ Barenberg and percussionist James Mackintosh. With the entire line-up heading off next week on its first tour, and the fourth series of the BBC version out on DVD, the Trans atlantic Sessions continue to march from strength to thrilling strength.
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