Three quarters of the way through the festival, and interest in what Celtic Connections 2014 has to offer shows no sign of tapering off. On Tuesday 28th January the auditorium at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library was packed with people eager to enjoy an enthralling double bill headed by Sharon Shannon with Alan O’Connor, and opened by Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas.
Alasdair Fraser has enjoyed a successful recording career since 1982. In those thirty-odd years, as well as solo work, his releases with his band Skyedance and collaborative albums with Paul Machlis and Tony McManus have enjoyed extensive critical acclaim. Alasdair first teamed up with Montreal cellist and Juilliard School graduate Natalie Haas in 2002 and they soon began to build a repertoire based on the premise that fiddle and cello are a traditional pairing in Scottish dance music. Since then, over several hugely successful albums they’ve demonstrated the cello’s exciting potential for rhythmic accompaniment to fiddle tunes, both traditional and contemporary.
With a stirring set of opening Strathspeys Fraser & Haas had the audience spellbound in moments. The interplay between fiddle and cello goes well beyond a simple melody and accompaniment arrangement, with the artists alternating the roles and the set growing in pace and complexity throughout – to a fiery conclusion. It’s an approach that’s served them well over the last 10 years of touring together, but thanks to a constantly developing repertoire, their love for the music, innovation and live performance; the sound never grows stale. In a much loved Neil Gow tune Alasdair flows while Natalie skips, on to a lively reel and to a new tune from Alasdair – The Referendum (to be played, he says, ‘optimistically’), with a hint of bluegrass in its spicy conclusion.
Alasdair Fraser is passionate about playing live, and always keen to share that passion with his audience; sharing tales of Celtic Connections adventures; such as a 70-strong ukulele flash mob in Buchannan Street, the history of each and every tune and his own thoughts on the development of arts in Scotland.
Highlights abound in this concert – such as linking the late Michael Ferrie’s Wings Of A Scorrie with the gorgeous, soaring melody of Duncan Chisholm’s The Farley Bridge using bass lines plucked on Natalie’s cello. In Hot Club d’Ecosse Natalie brings Dango Reindheart to Speyside with a riveting and ingenious cello adaptation of his unmistakeable guitar style. Alasdair’s enthusiasm for his instrument is as vocal as it is infectious, espousing its place in history as ‘a living thing, a firebrand, a time machine‘, and reminding the audience that ‘ethnic behaviour is encouraged’.
Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas have, as always, delighted the audience – any lover of the fiddle who remains unfamiliar with their music should remedy that situation. The title of their newly released CD is Abundance, and without a doubt the duo have brought an abundance of skill, talent and joy to Celtic Connections.
There isn’t much that can be said about Sharon Shannon that hasn’t already been said. One of Ireland’s most accomplished and best loved musicians, she’s been at the very top of Irish Music for two decades and just goes from strength to strength. In performance she’ll fill a room of any size with wonderful music and infectious joy. For her 2014 visit to Celtic Connections, Sharon revisited some favourites from her albums of the last 21 years. Opening with one of her first recordings, The Coridinio, Sharon introduced accompanist Alan O’Connor, whose early expansive piano solo merely hinted at the delights he had in store. The set was filled with favourites like Rathlin Island and De Dannan’s Duo In G. For The Woodchoppers Sharon reminded us all how adept she also is at fiddle, while keeping the tune every bit as light and refreshing as it was 21 years ago.
In addition to accompanying Sharon on the piano, Belfasts’ Alan O’Connor took the lead vocal, and guitar, for Midnight Special. But it’s when Alan takes on Donal Lunny’s Cavan Potholes that the true extent of his talent begins to shine through. Opening with live loops on the guitar to provide bass, rhythm and lead, as the pace picked up Alan alternated between guitar and piano until finally ending in the piece in a frenzied piano/guitar duet with himself that had the audience agape. Steve Earle’s Galway Girls and the ubiquitous Penguin Cafe Orchestra classic, Music For A Found Harmonium brought the set to a vigorous conclusion and left the capacity crowd hungry for more.
21 years on, Sharon Shannon continues to delight music fans with her constantly fresh and invigorating arrangements, thoroughly engaging stage presence and incredible musical talent – here’s to the next 21 years!
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Although we’ve no live clips of the performances this Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas gig was filmed in full at West Whately, MA and was so great we had to share it