It’s always great to find a wee gem among the big names at Celtic Connections. A visit to the Mitchell Library on Friday night (17th January) provided two such treasures. Before The Simon Bradley Trio and guests took to the stage as the Albastur Cultural Exchange, we were treated to an unlisted appearance by Cherry Grove. This group of five youngsters from around Scotland first appeared at Celtic Connections on the Danny Kyle Open Stage in 2012. Since then they’ve made appearances at Lorient and Solas Festivals, where their fusion of traditional and contemporary styles has highlighted them as a name to watch out for in the future.
After a couple of lively opening sets, in which Grant McFarlane’s accordion provided more than a modicum of continental flavour, there was a refreshingly up-beat arrangement of Black Is The Colour; and it was soon clear that Cherry Grove have an ear for original arrangements. Marianne Fraser’s vocal style offered an endearing combination of rock drawl and west coast accent, (and the same could probably be said of her guitar work) whether singing her own songs or treating us to Johnny Cash’s Ain’t No Grave – inspired by Crooked Still’s excellent cover. There were some positively delightful duets between Sarah MacNeil’s harp and Mhairi Mackinnon’s fiddle: Sarah’s harp can be dexterous, dramatic or as light as rain, while Mhairi’s fiddle playing was precise, accomplished and imaginative. Heather Shelley on keyboards provided an unbeatable foundation for the performance, supporting every nuance of the band’s delivery. As well as an immediate and stirring connection with an audience, Cherry Grove produce a sound that sets them apart and puts them firmly in their own place among Scotland’s up and coming bands.
To describe The Simon Bradley Trio as ‘a wee gem’ may seem somewhat unfair, but it’s easy for the more self-effacing performers to be missed when the limelight is on internationally known names. The trio (Simon Bradley, Anna-Wendy Stevenson, and Matheu Watson) enjoy an excellent reputation for fine music that criss-crosses borders, and genres, effortlessly. It’s through his work with the internationally renowned Asturian band Llan de Cubel that Simon’s been inspired to bring a taste of northern Spain to Celtic Connections.
In his opening remarks, Simon jocularly stated ‘We, are ACE’. Ok, he was referring to the acronym for Albastur Cultural Exchange project, but he wasn’t wrong in using it as an assessment of the music either.
Llan de Cubel confederate Xuan Rodríguez (Asturian Gaita) and Lisardo Prieto of Felpeyu (fiddle) provided an early taste of mediaeval Spain with a traditional dance – a Saltones. Just as in Scotland, many of the melodies played in Asturian tradition relate to dance, but there’s an equally strong vocal tradition. The Scottish vocal tradition is represented by Paul McCallum’s singularly husky Gaelic tenor, and it really is a wonder to hear; especially when accompanied by Simon, Anna-Wendy and Mathue. But even more rewarding is the contrast provided when singer Odon Garcia steps up to the microphone. All the power of the ancients seems to surge forth – a rich, sonic boom of a bass voice that resonates around the hall. During rehearsal the various elements of ACE have clearly bonded in a shared passion for indigenous music, perfectly illustrated when Garcia and McCallum trade traditions – Paul singing in Asturian and Odon in Gaelic. Among the domestic music on offer, Simon’s popular waltz Libby Shaw of Loch Awe is peppered with jazz influences, and early on The Asturian Sandwich provides a rousing set of tunes. Also joining the ensemble on stage were bodhran player Fonsu Mielgo (also of Llan de Cubel). There was even a contribution from percussionist James Mackintosh, probably the hardest working drummer in the land – for the next couple of weeks, at least.
ACE serves as wonderful reminder of the cultural ties enjoyed all along the Celtic Fringe. The passion for and devotion to traditional music and song was never more in evidence as this unique event unfolded, and amid the headline-grabbing names that Celtic Connections quite rightly attracts, it’s heartening to witness a collaboration so steeped in tradition enjoyed so enthusiastically by performers and audience alike.
The Simon Bradley Trio
Llan de Cubel
Review by: Neil McFadyen