The beginning of a new year is usually a hopeful time for me. However, given the state the world is currently in, the start of 2017 has sure felt a little bumpy for many of us. Luckily, Celtic Connections in Glasgow (19 January – 5 February 2017) has a track record of uniting cultures rather than dividing them and this is where I was headed for the second time, I really couldn’t wait! After having helped out behind the scenes at last year’s festival, I decided to just be a punter this year to give myself more time to explore Glasgow in between gigs. Nearby Edinburgh might have a greater visitor appeal as a well-known festival city, but Glasgow’s music, cafe and culture scene is not far behind at all. I was also luckier with the weather this time around and had found a lovely Airbnb near the Mitchell Library, i.e. walking distance to most of the festival hot spots.
Two day-time sessions I had booked, which took place upstairs at the Royal Concert Hall, were both billed as author talks, yet the second one featured a short set by world class musicians, a nice surprise. The event was with well-known Scottish author James Kelman, who was talking about his latest novel ‘Dirt Road’ and we learned that a film for cinema based on the book is in production right now. To our delight, we got to hear some of the music from the film played live by a group of musicians including prolific multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell (last saw him on stage with Joan Baez at Cambridge Folk Festival 2015) with his daughter Amelia, Lousiana accordion wizzard Preston Frank and his daughter Jennifer as well as the young Scottish accordion player Neil Sutcliffe, who plays the main character, Murdo, from Kelman’s book. What a brilliant event, just way too short, of course.
Given the current political climate, I was also glad to have made it to a packed ‘Take Back Our World’ event organised by Global Justice Now at Glasgow University for the first couple of sessions on Saturday morning. The speakers included Bernie Sanders’ brother Larry Sanders as well as activists from around the UK and abroad and it was heartening to see so many grassroots organisations working together at this important point in time. In the afternoon, I headed back to the RCH to listen to renowned Scottish actor David Hayman, talk about the children’s humanitarian organisation Spirit Aid, which he is head of operations of. During his talk the audience learned that unlike many larger charities, this ‘guerilla’ organisation uses 100% of donations to fund projects as far away as Afghanistan and Palestine, but is also helping people closer to home in local Scottish communities. It was inspiring to see what a small, determined group of people (like famous Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said) can get done with (comparably) small amounts of money. Definitely something to find out more about.
The gig I had been looking forward to most was a sold-out shared bill at Oran Mor in the Westend on Saturday night with Adam Holmes and the Embers as well as US four-piece Darlingside (see above). Adam’s band has long been one of my fav Scottish acts and even though they often play quite large festivals are still very underrated. So, if you haven’t heard of them yet, but enjoy intelligent songwriting with beautiful, gospel-like melodies, you won’t be disappointed. The main act on the night was Boston-based Darlingside, who had been a big surprise hit at Cambridge Folk Festival last summer and whose first visit to Scotland it was. The best shows are always the ones when you see the musicians having as much fun playing as the audience has listening to them and these four just combine a huge amount of positive energy and creativity, never mind being able to play viola, violin, banjo, mandolin and guitar to layer their meticulously crafted songs. It was a delight for the ears of any Americana and folk music enthusiast and their 90-minute set went by way too fast.
After browsing through antiques, books and other second-hand finds at the Barras market in Glasgow’s East End on Sunday morning, I was headed to the O2 ABC on Sauchiehall Street in the afternoon which had a bit of an empty nightclub during daytime vibe and thus didn’t seem ideal at first. However, the Hazy Recollections session with an eclectic line-up including its curator Findlay Napier as well as Ben Seal and Urban Farm Hand and Mhairi Orr soon made up for it. It was also great to meet some more festival goers, many of which came from other parts of Scotland, or further afield.
I was glad that, like last year, I had bagged a free ticket to the first of three BBC Alba Seirm (‘seirm’ meaning tune or melody) recordings for my last night at Celtic Connections. It was again held at the lovely Hillhead Bookclub (alas, not a book in sight) in the Westend and this time around I knew the drill. Everything took quite long because of the filming, but who was going to complain when there were so many excellent musicians on the bill: Mary Chapin Carpenter (see above) Darlingside again (yeah!), Welsh singer-songwriter Gareth Bonello and two Scots Gaelic singers Eilidh Cormack (from Skye) as well as Joy Dunlop. I shared a table with a couple of Gaelic speakers from some of the Hebridean islands and had an altogether fantastic evening.
In between the gigs I managed to try some more veggie and vegan places, of which there are plenty in the city, including The 78 Bar in Finnieston on Thursday night (great vegan haggis burger). A lot of these cafes are also dog-friendly, which is a nice touch, unless you’re allergic, of course. The Hug & Pint on Great Western Road had a good lunch deal for their Asian-inspired vegan food, but it might be better to head there at night, as my daytime visit was decidedly lacklustre. A return visit to Café Saramago (in the CCA on Sauchiehall Street) positively surprised me with excellent soya latte and a simple but very delicious sweet potato chilli (so good, especially in this chilly weather). Alas, I never got to try Tantrum Doughnuts (I’m coming for you on my next visit!), but enjoyed being back at Kember and Jones on Byres Road. My fav new discovery by far, however, was The Singl-end Café. It’s unsurprising there is never an empty seat in the house as the food looks and tastes absolutely fantastic. They offer plenty of veggie and vegan options (including vegan and gluten free breads and pastries plus three different types of non-dairy milk) and the baked eggs (or Shakshuka, see above) were out of this world. A stone’s throw from the bustle of Sauchiehall Street, this place should be your first port of call for a satisfying breakfast, lunch or dinner out. Celtic Connections sure is a great way to spend a couple of days relaxing at first-class concerts as well as enjoying all the amenities a city like Glasgow has to offer and I’ll most definitely be back again soonish!