The Undercover Celt - No Sleep Till February
Another week, another missive from our intrepid mystery reporter, delving ever deeper into the relentless gigging of Celtic Connections week two.
When this year's line-up was first announced, there was widespread consensus that Celtic Connections had excelled itself, even by its own exalted standards. Twelve days and two weekends in, those advance impressions are excelled again by the reality: rarely have I seen so many five-star reviews from hard-marking critics. Glowing public feedback has also flowed in from all quarters of the programme, about acts as diverse as Guillemots frontman Fyfe Dangerfield, rising Americana star Nell Bryden and oud-led Arabic rockers Speed Caravan, to name just a smattering of the seemingly great gigs I haven't personally been at.
Top highlights among those that I have - to pick from a crowded field of contenders - include Monday night's gig from festival regular Beth Nielsen Chapman (watch exclusive video here) who was on great form, performing to a near-capacity crowd of what she affectionately referred to as my Glasgow people. A prolonged early interlude of PA perplexity involving a lack of guitar was solved when she realised she hadn't plugged it in! The festival's second Monday night always has a particularly lovely vibe about it - everyone fully into the Celtic Connections swing, somewhat tired but extremely happy after the weekend's shenanigans, still with a full week of fun to go - and Nielsen certainly benefitted from this warm-hearted, ultra-relaxed ambience, while also contributing her own considerable share.
Rewind to the start of the weekend and last Friday's wholly delectable Fiddle Summit, at which the leave-em-wanting-more format of six duos or trios playing three numbers each before a terrific ensemble finale ideally served both artists and audience alike. One of the featured fiddlers, US roots maestro Darol Anger - also here with his Republic of Strings project - has been a near-constant presence around the Festival Club and late-night sessions over the last several days, wreathed in smiles and jumping at any chance of a tune. Beninoise singer Angelique Kidjo comprehensively rocked the Fruitmarket later on that night, while 24 hours later, in the same venue, it was the Treacherous Orchestra's turn, celebrating their 1600-capacity sell-out with a truly awesome set. This was later reprised to riotous effect at the Festival Club, where of course the band was originally formed to play the final night a few years back.
Both halves of Sunday's Salsa Celtica 15th birthday show were likewise stunning: firstly Cape Verdean support act Mayra Andrade, on her first Celtic Connections visit, ensuring that it hopefully won't be her last with her bewitching voice and vibrant Afro/Latin/jazz musical mix, then Salsa Celtica themselves, in a 25-strong Grand Orquestra format packed with star guests, dovetailing Scottish, Irish, Asturian and Latin traditions with greater fluency and panache than ever.
With no Festival Club this year from Monday to Thursday, the late-night sessions at the Concert Hall have swiftly become a popular post-gig alternative, even being preferred by many to the Art School. Among the headline acts has been Scottish chart-topper Sandi Thom, who played a storming 40-minute set with her new bluesy band last Thursday, as well as the aforementioned Ms Chapman, coaxed onstage very late on Sunday along with one of her band, multi-instrumentalist Marcus Hummon, a Grammy-winning songwriter in his own right.
There's certainly no escape from the madness up at the Art School itself, with every night a sell-out and the whole place teeming with that singularly implacable Celtic Connections pursuit of another mad night to remember. Hotel night staff across central Glasgow brace themselves for a 5am invasion of returning musicians and crew, hell-bent on more drink, more tunes, more craic, until yon time and well beyond, and this in establishments mainly accustomed to clients in suits keeping office hours. It's certainly not the least entertaining of the umpteen cross-cultural encounters currently taking place under the festival's auspices.
This coming weekend, too, a whole additional caravanserai rolls into town, with the arrival of around 200 international music industry delegates for the four-day Showcase Scotland event. This will see them dashing between venues, shopping for their festival, venue, record-label or agency from 60-odd Scottish acts, ensuring that the festival's annual legacy for our home-grown scene extends well beyond next Monday's vast collective hangover.