By Colin Hunter
Since its first gig in 1994, Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival has earned, and maintained, its place as a leader in its field.
In March, in what will be the festival’s first excursion beyond the dear green place, there’ll be a two-day spin-off event on the Isle of Skye. And, in September, as if to reinforce the international flavour of the festival’s rich weave of folk, roots, and world music, the organisers are due to run a showcase event at the Ryder Cup in Chicago.
Eighteen years on from that very first gig (Wolfstone, in case you’re wondering), and Celtic Connections 2012, which ended recently, saw attendances of more than 100,000 and ticket sales in excess of £1.1m for 300 events across Glasgow in 18 days. These are remarkable figures, made less so only when you examine the quality of musicians who have taken part over the years.
Back in ’94, artists included Dick Gaughan, Dougie MacLean, The Chieftains, Boys of the Lough, and the Battlefield Band. There’s nothing quite like starting as you mean to go on.
Fast forward to the millennium, and the running order included De Dannan, Alasdair Fraser’s Skyedance, Runrig, and Janis Ian. Jump a few more years, to 2007 and the arrival of Taynuilt’s (and Capercaillie’s) Donald Shaw as Artistic Director, and there was a line-up that ranged from Richie Havens, Kate Rusby, and Clannad, to Rosanne Cash, Eddi Reader, and John Martyn.
But Celtic Connections is about more than just the longest-established names in the scene. This year, Kintyre’s Lorne MacDougall, one of Scotland’s finest young pipers, played on 4 February alongside his colleagues from the Traditional Music & Song Association of Scotland’s (TMSA) Young Trad Tour.
And, at the daily Open Stage event, which lets up-and-coming artists perform in front of a knowledgeable audience, Tarbert Folk Group – five students from Tarbert Academy – was selected to take part.
Over the years, world music has rightly become a major player in the programme, but the music of the British Isles continues to maintain a strong presence.
This year’s festival saw one performance, in particular, which went beyond music to harness the power of the spoken word and things remembered. As Celtic Connections 2012 drew to a close, Northumbrian piper and fiddler Kathryn Tickell brought her “Northumbrian Voices” production to the Strathclyde Suite at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall.
Now, despite the title, this is no uniquely English show. Using speech and music in equal measure, it paints a portrait of rural life which is as relevant north of the border – in Argyll, for example, or in the outlying parts of Perthshire – as it is over the border among the sheep-grazed hills and thinly-populated valleys of north Northumberland.
Travel just 30 miles north-east from urban Tyneside, to the sheep-farming communities of Wark and Bellingham, and you’ll find words, and ways of using them, a world apart from anything you’re likely to hear in Wallsend, North Shields, or Gateshead.
The stories which punctuate Northumbrian Voices are of people who live on the land, and who earn their living from it. People who know their surroundings as they know the back of their hand. And people who, having a fine understanding of their animals, treat them with compassion, and who can read the weather with one glance at the sky.
They are the stories also of musicians who, within living memory, would walk miles to play for five bob at a Saturday night dance. More often than not, they were farming people, often shepherds – and it was from time-served fiddlers and pipers such as these that Kathryn Tickell learnt her trade.
A production like Northumbrian Voices demands a fine balance between story-telling and music. Too much talk, and the audience will yearn for the respite that music offers – too much music, and the message will be swamped. Frankly, Ms Tickell and her co-director Annie Rigby have achieved the ideal blend.
The alternation between rural memories and top-notch musicianship is what gives the show its strength. Once you’re settled in, there’s a good deal of pleasure to be gleaned from anticipating the next outcrop of music – or the next tale of life as lived, now or back then, in the North Tyne valley.
What emerges is a picture of hard-working close-knit communities with a great sense of belonging to their farms and villages and of oneness with the landscape. Of people who, in their all too rare free time, are truly capable of enjoying themselves, and who love and respect their musical heritage.
Many of the spoken words are transcribed from recordings both old and new, and whilst some of the original speakers have passed on, others are present-day friends, relatives, and neighbours of Kathryn. Either way, they are voices which she knows well and holds dear.
Those who have gone include some of Kathryn’s greatest musical influences – the unassuming border musicians, such as fiddler Willie Taylor and mouth-organist Will Atkinson, who taught her to play the old dance medleys and the poignant airs.
In November 2000, North-East concertina maestro Alistair Anderson wrote, in Willie Taylor’s obituary in the Guardian: “He will be greatly missed by lovers of traditional music throughout the country, but his music will live on”.
Northumbrian Voices is Kathryn’s way of paying homage to the skills of players like Taylor and to the pleasure they gave through their music – and she will ensure that their music lives on.
But Kathryn Tickell is not only a performer. She is a gifted natural teacher, too, and she makes it clear that she’s grateful for the opportunity to pass to the next generation of fiddlers and pipers the nuances which she picked up from her teachers – and which they learnt from theirs. And so her old friends will live forever in the music. It’s an engaging and moving philosophy, and it’ll resonate with any dedicated musician.
However, not all the music in Northumbrian Voices is in the traditional idiom, and the programme includes several pieces by members of the band. But, even in these, there’s never less than a respectful nod to the older styles.
Kathryn’s fiddling and piping credentials are a matter of record, and her playing on this occasion was of the usual untouchable standard. Her personality and her passion for the Northumbrian musical heritage shine through, and they make this production come alive.
But a show like this is about everyone pulling together, and, as usual, Kathryn has brought on board some excellent musicians.
Her father Mike Tickell recites and sings in that matchless accent of his. His performance of his own Song for the North Tyne reinforced just how good a writer and singer he is. And he made short work of persuading a Glasgow audience to join in on a song in praise of English shepherds. But if you really want to know how Mike ticks, just listen out for Kathryn’s account of a certain visit she made to some cottages where the vast reservoir Kielder Water now lies.
Fiddling were Perthshire’s Patsy Reid and Newcastle-based Hannah Rickard. Patsy’s playing rates surely amongst the best in the land, and her close-harmony singing with Kathryn and Hannah confirmed that she has more than one string to her bow.
Hannah is a fine and versatile singer and instrumentalist, who’s heading for a long and distinguished career. Listen to her Layla here.
Guitarist Kit Haigh is a (relatively) old hand who knows exactly what’s required and when, and Julian Sutton‘s melodeon work is mesmerising. It’s a shame that these fellas don’t get more of the limelight, but it doesn’t detract from their performance one bit and, if they’re happy, so be it.
As for personal favourites from the performance – sorry, but I’ll keep my own counsel. It would be far too easy to spoil the experience for you if you’ve yet to catch up with Northumbrian Voices.
And what about that opening paragraph? Well, Celtic Connections 2013 could be the busiest yet – worth bearing in mind when it comes to securing your tickets of choice. Just sayin’, mind.
Celtic Connections 2012 & Big Top logos © Celtic Connections 2012
Image of St Michael’s Church, Wark, © Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Image of Front St., Bellingham, © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Image of Mike Tickell © English Folk Photos 2012, www.efngallery.co.uk
All other images © Mid-Argyll & Kintyre News 2012