Celtic Connections

I’ve been absent from WordPress for a few weeks – neither writing or keeping up with reading blogs I follow as I’ve been busy with work ever since Christmas. And after being glued to Zoom all day for meetings and delivering training, I’ve been less keen on spending more time in front of a computer screen during my free time. But work pressures are easing off a little so it’s time for a catch up 😉

It’s getting on to close to a year now since life has been disrupted by the pandemic. We’ve been in and out of lockdown and although I’ve been restricted to local walks for substantial periods I was able to get out to the Lakes and Anglesey during the summer. We haven’t been able to get out to concerts, the theatre, galleries and exhibitions since last March, though and I’ve certainly missed all that. I have sustained a semblance of cultural activity though, as some organisations have managed to run events on-line. So I’ve been able “attend” three virtual folk festivals, Kate Ruby’s Christmas concert and watch a few National Theatre productions . I’ve also been able to “visit” the Hay Festival, the Wigtown Book Festival, the Orkney Science Festival and the Kendal Mountain Festival all of which were run online – events I’d always wanted to visit but have never had the opportunity. Watching on screen isn’t the same as being there, of course. It’s too easy to be distracted when you’re in front of the TV and you miss the excitement of being somewhere different and mixing with other people. But, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to attend most, if not all, of these events if they hadn’t been run on-line.

Another annual event I’ve always fancied attending is the Celtic Connections Festival that’s run every January up in Glasgow. The festival focuses on traditional Scottish music international folk, roots and world music artists with concerts, ceilidhs, talks, free events, late night sessions and workshops too. It always seems like a good way of cheering up the rather dark and dismal days that follow on from Christmas.

Last December I got a tip off from Anabel , the Glasgow Gallivanter that the festival was going on-line and that early bird tickets were available for a very reasonable price of £30 that allowed access to all the concerts. So I snapped one up and was able to keep myself entertained during the dark January evenings.

There were plenty of traditional Scottish and Gaelic bands, playing jaunty music with fiddles, pipes and the like. I was able to watch concerts featuring some familiar musicians like Karine Polwart, Rachel Newton and Julie Fowlis.

The Transatlantic sessions is a project that brings traditional musicians together from, as the name suggests, both sides of the Atlantic – from Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the USA in particular. I’ve watched some programmes on the BBC over a number of years, so it was good to see them performing “live” – with a number of performers on stage in Glasgow with video links to musicians over the other side of the water.

The concert of Quebecois music – Quebecfest – featuring Vent du Nord, De Temps Antan and Grosse Ille was another highlight

But there were new discoveries too – from other traditions and musical genres

Xabier Diaz from the Gallicia region of Spain, backed by a group of female singers playing what must be a rectangular Gallician version of the bodhrán 

Fergus McCreadie, a talented young Scottish jazz pianist who plays “an innovative blend of jazz and Scottish traditional music”. Many of his compositions are inspired by the Scottish landscapes, with titles such as Cairn, North, Across Flatlands, Mull and The Stones of Brodgar

Dreamer’s Circus, a Danish / Swedish trio with a contemporary take on traditional Nordic music

I didn’t watch every concert – there were too many, and there workshops too (not included in the festival ticket, though) – but certainly enjoyed the experience. It would have been better to have been there and savour the atmosphere, but that wasn’t possible. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to go up to Glasgow this January anyway so watching on my TV at home allowed me to get a taster. And it’s made me determined to get up there next year when (hopefully!) it will return to being a live event. And an opportunity to meet up with a bloggy friend too, perhaps 😉.

Drive the Cold Winter Away

I heard this song on Sunday’s Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music.

A duo comprising Nicola Kearey & Ian Carter, Stick in the Wheel, are a “Folk” band from East London who

….. bring a contemporary approach to folk music with raw minimalism, setting vocals to simple accompaniments and handclaps

Wikipedia

For this old Christmas song, of Elizabethan origin, they’re singing to a modern arrangement using synths rather than traditional instruments and with the singer’s voice electronically distorted. I rather like it.

The song is about putting aside differences, forgetting old wrongs, and singing, dancing, eating , drinking and playing together. Although this arrangement is much less jolly. More like a lament for activities that aren’t allowed at the moment. Very apt for our times, I think.

Here’s the lyrics if you want to sing along.

Stay safe and try to enjoy our Covid Christmas

Happy Hollyday

Way back in 2012 we went to see Kate Rusby’s concert at Warrington’s Parr hall during her annual Christmas tour around the UK. Since then we’ve been to see her perform several times, usually at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall when we would combine the concert with an afternoon looking round the Christmas market and a bite to eat. None of that was possible this year due to you know what. It’s been a difficult time for musicians with no venues open but there have been some imaginative initiatives where artists have ben able to perform over the Internet.

We’ve always enjoyed Kate’s concert’s immensely. For someone who isn’t so tall (!) she has a big stage presence and twinkling eyes and a smile almost as wide as the stage. She chats away between the songs and really does seem to be enjoy the Christmas celebrations. And combined with the Christmas market her concert has felt like the start of Christmas for us, so I was delighted to find out that she was arranging to stream a concert from Doncaster with a limited live audience (of family and close friends, I guess) so we signed up to watch the performance which was broadcast last Saturday.

Her Christmas concert is based around old traditional versions of carols as performed around the pubs in South Yorkshire . Some of the songs were well known carols but sung to a different tune with other traditional songs sung to more familiar tunes. She was accompanied by her band of folk musicians and also by a brass quintet, which makes the performance particularly Christmassy for me.

Of course, watching a concert from your own living room isn’t the same as being in the midst of a crowd in a concert hall, but we made the best of it, streaming onto our main TV. We’d put the tree up during the afternoon and we even arranged to have our own version of Christmas market food with German sausage hot dogs with mustard and (well we like it!) a helping of saurkraut (or choucroute if you want to be French). The concert though was pure Northern English entertainment and accents (listen her pronounce “come” and “choir”) – I’ll always forgive Kate for being from the wrong side of the Pennines!

It was the first time my daughter, who has moved back in with us for the time being, has seen Kate perform but, just like us, enjoyed the performance.

So there we are – our Covid Christmas has started. And next year, hopefully all this mess will be in the past and we’ll be able to see her perform live to kickstart the Christmas celebrations.

So I hope everyone reading this has a great Christmas break – but make sure you take care so that all your loved ones have a good chance to be around to celebrate properly in 2021.

The Man Machine?

Last week Florian Schneider, one of the founders of Kraftwerk died of cancer aged 73. I was never a massive fan of the band. Although I could admire the cleverness of their work, I always found purely electronic music didn’t stir me emotionally. Neverless I liked some of their songs. Perhaps my favourite was Autobahn, although due to my ignorance of the German language, until J, who studied German to A level, put me right, I was convinced they were singing of having Fun, Fun, Fun on the Autobahn.

Anyway reading of Florian’s passing I was reminded of a favourite tribute to Kraftwerk by Bill Bailey.

A Front Room Festival

So, on Easter Monday, during the lockdown, I went to a music festival. The people behind the podcast Folk on Foot, which I subscribe to, had organised a “Front room festival” . I hadn’t been to a festival since the Reading festival in 1975, but on Monday, on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, I settled down on the couch in front of our TV, to watch 15 top folk artists, most of whom had featured in an episode of the podcast, playing in their front rooms who all played sets of around 30 minutes.

The whole festival, over 7 hours long, can be viewed on Youtube

And there’s a podcast available of some ofthe highlights here.

There was a twitter hashtag for the event #frontroomfestival and it was fun to read the comments and look at the photos being posted there. Some people were really getting into the spirit of the thing, setting up their living rooms as if they were out in the middle of a field somewhere! (Absolute Radio were also running something similar, but with a different type of music! and were using the same hashtag)

And like any other music event, they even had a “merch tent” with t shirts and hoodies for sale.

No beer or food tents, mind. You had to sort that out for yourselves!

Folk on Foot was launched by the broadcaster and former BBC executive Matthew Bannister in August 2018. In each episode Matthew walks with a leading folk artist in the landscape that has inspired their music and they sing and play on location.

A bit of culture

Over the past few weeks we’ve been busy soaking up a bit of culture

The Thursday of my week off work we had tickets for a production at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. We’d planned to combine that with a lower level walk in the Borrowdale Valley, but plans had to change after J sprained her foot. Luckily she’d recovered enough to have a look around Keswick before a pre-theatre meal in the Fellpack restaurant

Our theatre tickets were for a performance of The Ladykillers, a play based on the 1955 Ealing Comedy a favourite film of mine that starred Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. The play is based on the film, not the other way round and it had first been produced back in 2011 at Liverpool Playhouse, starring Peter Capaldi.

The plot followed that of the film, with a few differences. As with previous visits to the Theatre by the Lake we enjoyed the production. Is was well acted, particularly Dominic Gately as the Professor, who brought a real comic touch to the role. Devesh Kishore wasn’t as sinister as Herbert Lom as Louis – who could be – but I thought Luke Murphy made more of the part of Harry than Peter Sellers.

This week the weather mid week has been awful with heavy rain (we didn’t get it anywhere near as bad a further east and south, mind). We had tickets for two events – a play at the Royal Exchange on Wednesday and a musical performance at the Halle’s small venue in Ancoats on Thursday so we braved the rain and drove into Manchester two days on the trot.

Another pre-theatre meal, this time at Mowgli’s in the Corn Exchange

Light Falls a new play by Simon Stephens, with music by Jarvis Cocker, at the Royal Exchange, has had good reviews and was almost sold out, even on a wet Wednesday evening.

Connecting five relatives in five disparate English towns, from Blackpool to Durham, LIGHT FALLS is a richly layered play about life in the face of death, about how our love survives us after we’ve gone – and about how family, community and kindness help the North survive.

Royal Exchange website

As with just about everything we’ve seen at the Royal Exchange it was a good production with some excellent performances by the cast. Mind you, the first half in particular really lived up to the saying that “it’s grim up north”. It started by somebody dying before moving round the north of England to “visit” her husband and offspring who all had their own problems. Things resolved themselves a little at the end at the funeral and the ending was a little more optimistic.

Thursday evening and we were back in Manchester to see a performance by a young Polish pianist Hania Rani ( short for Raniszewska) at the Halle St Michaels venue, a converted church, in Ancoats. I’d come across her via Spotify, which has a “Discover Weekly” feature, where tracks are suggested based on your playlists. One week it had included one of her piano pieces from her recently released LP, Esja, and as I liked it I followed the link and explored the LP and some of her other music, including her LP with cellist Dobrawa Czocher.

Looking at Hania’s website I spotted that she was performing in Manchester at the start of a European tour so decided to get along. I had to buy the tickets online and was surprised to see that the start time was given as 7 p.m., which seemed rather early. Turned out that it was! We arrived in Manchester just after 6, parked up and walked across the city centre and Northern Quarter towards Ancoats, stopping off for a drink in a bar. We arrived at the venue at about quarter to 7 to discover that they were still conducting sound checks and that the doors were not due to open at 7:30. An apology would have been nice but the guy on the door seemed indignant that we’d turned up early (as had other people). So, a little dischuffed, we went back to the Northern Quarter for another drink.

I really enjoyed the concert, though. It’s a small venue, rather like the Liverpool Philharmonic’s “Music Room”, but it was pretty full. Hania played a fairly long set – about an hour and 20 minutes, without a break. I recognised many of the pieces from her LP but she also included a number of other pieces including 3 songs.

Hania is originally from Gadansk but now shares her time in Warsaw and Berlin. Her label, Gondwana Records, is Manchester based, which is why her tour was starting there. I think that her style is best described as minimalist classical – rather like the music of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Max Richter – with jazz and other influences.

Here’s a couple of her pieces, both from her LP

and here’s a piece performed with Dobrawa Czocher

Haarlem Jazz

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Our visit to Haarlem coincided with the annual Jazz Festival which started on the Wednesday and ran through until Sunday. We’d hoped to catch some of the music on the Wednesday and Thursday before we headed for home on Friday. On Wednesday evening, however, it poured down more or less continuously so after spending some time watching one of the acts on the opening night, we decided to call it quits and retreated to Tierney’s bar! The next night was much better. It didn’t rain and we were able to sample some of the music and atmosphere.

On the Wednesday there was only one stage, set up in the Grote Markt, but the next night three more stages opened up. 2 other stages around the Grote Kerk – on Oude Groenmarkt and Klokhuisplein – and another venue at the Pletterij , on the outskirts of the town centre.

From what we saw there wasn’t much jazz being played at the Jazz festival, which is why it’s actually billed as Haarlem Jazz and more. On Thursday the main stage was occupied by a couple of performers playing / performing electronic dance music, which is very big in the Netherlands. Not my scene at all, but clearly loved by the audience of mainly young adults.

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The other two stages around the Grote Kerk seemed to be devoted to soul music. Looking at the programme the “real” jazz seemed to be playing at the Pletterij .

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Soul Six on the Klokhuisplein stage
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We spent most of our time listening to a band on the smaller stage in the on Oude Groenmarkt . Uncle Sue are a local band and with a female singer and a horn section who were performing Stax style soul music. They were a good live act and much more up my street!

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“Do you have some Blues in you?”

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I came across this gentlemen at his stall on Hebden Bridge market when I was there a few weeks ago. He made up cigar box guitars and after spotting them I had to have a closer look.

He greeted me by asking me “have you got some blues in you?” Well I have – a little anyway! He spotted my Lancashire accent but despite this (!) I got chatting with him about how he made his hand built guitars and I had a go at playing one – they’re meant for playing slide or “bottleneck” style and it’s not something I’d really attempted before.

He told me that he had Parkinson’s disease (he had the characteristic hand tremor) but still persevered in building the instruments. I thought they were quite reasonably priced (probably worth more) and would have been tempted to buy one if I wasn’t just about to set out for a walk on the moors.

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Vishtèn at the Phil

Last Saturday we went out for the second evening on the trot, having been to a concert by the St Petersburg Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday. Almost unheard of these days! This time we drove into Liverpool for a performance at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room by the Canadian Arcadian folk band Vishtèn. We hadn’t heard of the band before I saw the advert for the concert, but having checked out their website I thought they looked like a good bet for an enjoyable evening – I wasn’t wrong!

Wikipedia tells us that The Acadians 

are the descendants of French colonists who settled in Acadia during the 17th and 18th centuries, some of whom are also descended from the Indigenous peoples of the region.

They were expelled from Canada by the British, and some migrated to Louisiana forming the Cajun population in the USA. But some managed to hang on in Canada.

The trio comprises multi-instrumentalists Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc from the Evangeline Region of Prince Edward Island, and Magdalen Islands’ native, Pascal Miousse……. Together, they pay homage to their traditions and to the historic and strong musical connections between their two island Acadian communities (Band’s website)

Their music is a mix of French, Irish and Scots influences, including energetic reels and lively balads sung in the Acadian French dialect. There were some similarities with Cajun music which I like.

Pastelle, the male member of the band played fiddle and guitar while the two female members, who are twin sisters, played various instruments, including keyboard, accordian, mandolin and tin whistles. They also provide percussion, with their feet! They efffectively tap danced while they were sitting down playing their instruments.

I really enjoyed the evening and have been following up the concert during the past week listening to a CD I bought at the concert and via Spotify. I’d certainly go to see them again if I get the chance.