The month of January is a long, dark month, but in Scotland we have Celtic Connections, festival of world music, to brighten up this grim month. Each year I attend at least three #CCfest events. Sometimes they are carefully researched, sometimes greatness is stumbled upon.
The festival is only half way through and already I’ve been rewarded with two great nights.
Dirt Road to Lafayette
The first was held at the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT). Dirt Road to Lafayette is a film written by Booker winning novelist, James Kelman. My sister invited me to join her because the star of the film was her fiddle teacher’s son, Neil Sutcliffe. What I didn’t know about Neil (19) is what an extremely talented musician he is.
The story of Dirt Road to Lafayette is set in North Alabama and follows a young boy (Murdo) and his father (Tom) on a holiday of grief. Murdo’s mother, Tom’s wife has recently died and both men are hurting badly. While out walking in a small town, Murdo hears music from a nearby neighbourhood. He encounters legendary accordion player Queen Monzee-ay and, although he hasn’t played since his mother’s death, Murdo joins her in playing some traditional tunes. Throughout the rest of the film we see Murdo working his grief through the zydeco music of the region. Murdo strives to join Queen Monzee-ay on stage at a festival in Lafayette. The festival scenes where Murdo and Queen Monzee-ay play together are outstanding.
After the film there was a question and answer session with Kelman, Sutcliffe and director Kenny Glenaan, where we learned that Neil was only fifteen years old when the film was shot. The film was low budget but Kelman’s enthusiasm for the music of the area and Glenaan’s passion for the story proved their determination to make the project work. As a finale Neil treated the theatre audience to a live performance of the waltz that sparked off Murdo’s zydeco journey.
Karine Polwart and Kris Drever and The Scottish Chamber Orchestra
This double bill was held at Glasgow’s majestic Kings Theatre and was a feast of musical storytelling.
The support act, Kentuckian duo, The Local Honeys treated us to a glimpse of their heritage; tales of coal mining and the railroad, many tunes penned by themselves, many by their Kentucky ‘Sheros’.
There followed a short interval to allow the Chamber Orchestra to tune up for the main event.
Nearly all the songs featured strong storytelling, from a remembrance of the Kindertransports, and the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow to two or three? songs connected by the strange unlikely beauty of Grangemouth Petrochemical Plant and another of a small girls plan to survive a nuclear blast.
For me the highlight from Karine Polwart was the wee bird song. She has recently published a children’s picture book and I have to admit when I first heard this I thought ‘she’s a musician, what does she know about writing’. This of course was a foolish thought, all Karine Polwart’s songs are pure storytelling. And when she told the story of the wee bird from her book I was captivated and made a mental note to buy it for my granddaughter.
My Kris Drever highlight was Ghost, a song about being treated as an incomer even though born in this country.
There is no doubt the Scottish Chamber Orchestra added a new dynamic to the music and turned this into a spectacular concert, but if I’m honest both Polwart and Drever could have carried off the whole show with their voices and acoustic guitars alone.
Music is storytelling, storytelling is music and Celtic Connections knows how to put on that show.