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Danny MacAskill

Martyn Bennett’s second studio album Bothy Culture was given the full orchestral treatment on Saturday 27 January in Glasgow’s Hydro arena – mid-point highlight of this year’s sell-out Celtic Connections 25th  Anniversary Festival.  Building on the success of Greg Lawson’s arrangement of his friend Bennett’s album GritNae Regrets – premiered at Celtic Connections in 2015, this debut of ‘Bothy Culture and Beyond’ had a hard and complex act to follow.  The expectant capacity crowd – from babes in arms to mature silver backs – stacked in Glasgow’s vertiginous coliseum, mosh pit an all,  settled down for a spectacle which rocketed Bennett’s already innovative interpretations of Scots and Gaelic traditions in an altogether new direction.

Pumped up by the stomping beats and trippy lightshows of Skye’s Niteworks, their guitar riffs, steroid piping and paradiddles tanked through a traditional repertoire which successfully enfolded Julie Fowlis and The Shee. By the end of their set the event’s transition from ceilidh to house was complete. The 80+ strong Grit Orchestra et al took it from there with the velocity needed to continue the wholesale reboot of the audience’s Celtic Connectors which the evening was shaping up to be.

The son of Margaret Bennett the celebrated Scottish folklorist and singer, Martyn, who died of lymphoma aged 33 years in 2005, said of his work in 2003,

I’m not trying to change the face of Scottish music. It’ll change on its own in ways that I won’t ever know how in the future.

Bennett’s modest yet prophetic words may have been ringing in Musical Director Greg Lawson’s ear as he set about arranging his friend’s second studio album for GRIT Orchestra, trapeze, aerialist, spoken word, landscape, boat and trail bike.  The rationale behind this strange mega mash-up became clearer as the night went on but as sheer circus it seemed to work from the off.  The crowd were delighted by biking acrobat Danny MacAskill’s staged recreation of his Youtube smashhit ride on Skye in ‘The Ridge’ –  the cardboard rocks, lightshow loch, Cuillin backdrop, mountain trails and all managed somehow to stay this side of naff. Despite the scale and strangeness, the sweet, strong tones of Fiona Hunter singing ‘Blackbird’ accompanied by a harmonious men’s choir created a haunting delicacy around MacAskill’s wheelies and bunnyhops. Sweeping strings and a glorious heart-vibrating brass section were the necessary multipliers to the greatly expanded traditional line-up of whistle, pipe and drums sections which carried Bennett’s music across the cavernous auditorium and up to the furthest seats perched high up in the gods.

Aerial ballet

With Aisling ni Cheallaigh’s extraordinary aerial ballet and interwoven spoken word performances from David Hayman and Innes Watson (vocals + diddling), Lawson carefully wrapped Bennett’s ethics of connection around his Scottish, gamelan-tinged, Arabic and Indian infusions.  Could this curious Scottish orchestral admixture be the long-lost love bairn of the influential 9-piece Cauld Blast Orchestra  whose innovative and eclectic mix of Scottish folk, jazz and classical traditions blew through a startled Scottish music scene in the 1980s?    While the vast scale and physical remove of Bothy Culture and Beyond from its cultural roots and its audience may irk the critics and defy the copycats, a Scottish techno-circus for the 21st century may have been born.

Celtic Connections ends on 4 February 2018.

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Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson reviews one show looking at the life and music of Margaret Barry

This article first appeared in Common Space https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10265/anni-donaldson-century-apart-art-margaret-barry-and-karine-polwart

THE gulf separating the lived experience of singers Margaret Barry and Karine Polwart could hardly be wider. 

Margaret, born into a family of street musicians in Cork in 1917, and Karine, a 40-something from Edinburgh, show the distance women have travelled in the world of traditional music and song.

‘She Moved Through the Fair’ by Colin Irwin and Mary McPartlan, which played at the Tron Theatre as part of Celtic Connections, gave us a funny, poignant and honestly tuneful evocation of Barry’s colourful life.

Karine Polwart

Finding herself homeless at 16, she took her chances on the road with just her bicycle and her ‘banji’, as she called it. Living rough at times and singing for bed and board, she traipsed around Ireland’s cities and country fairs singing on street corners, in pubs or wherever she could earn her keep.

Although she learned the hard way how to command an audience and compete with the clatter of street and stall, her powerfully sweet and melodic tones gave voice to Ireland’s eternal longing for itself in ballads of migration, of loves lost and found, of failed rebellion and roving in the years after the failed Easter Rising.

The self-styled ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ was strong in the face of the Irish Catholic Church’s view of independently-minded single mothers like herself, of a male-dominated culture and general prejudice against travellers – she held her own and had the last laugh.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: James Kelman on the Dirt Road to Lafayette

Bumping into tradition-hunters Robin Roberts and Alan Lomax in 1951, Barry’s gifts were recognised and she went on to become the centre of the growing Irish community in London, taking up residence at sessions in the famous Bedford Arms with her new musical partner, fiddler Michael Gorman.

Caring little at all for her appearance, lack of front teeth and more for stout, Margaret went on to a colourful career touring the US. Mary McPartlan (main picture) lovingly rendered Margaret’s signature songs like the Galway Shawl, The Factory Girl, My Laggan Love, the Wild Colonial Boy and others including the exquisite title song.

Larne-born actor Ruby Campbell’s fine portrayal of Margaret through her life gave a real sense of this huge character and the size of the toss she never gave for convention or sobriety.

Polwart’s play, Wind Resistance, by contrast, expressed more 20th century concerns for land, nature, community, birth and motherhood. Centred on her beloved Falla Moss, Polwart’s multi-dimensional performance combined songs and stories old and new, chat, audio interviews and wondrous back projections of geese in flight.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

Polwart drew the connections and cooperation between bird, land, people, history and agriculture, weaving her tale around the love story of Roberta and Will who settled in Falla Moor in 1919. This deeply moving musical essay shared one highly creative woman’s art through reminiscence, via football, medieval medicine, peat bogs, moss and birth.

That Polwart had the funding and freedom to do what Barry could only do by force of will shows how far we have come in recognising the art women can make given half a chance.

We must thank Celtic Connections for reminding us of those uproarious foremothers like Margaret Barry who carved those first paths through the peat bog of centuries of tradition and silt and ended up on the boards of the Tron Theatre.

Pictures courtesy of Celtic Connections

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