The one time you really do need to be able to be in more than one place at the same time is at the annual Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. This year’s sumptuous feast of international folk, traditional and world music, which finished on 4th February, was their 25th Festival. Festival Artistic Director Donald Shaw took time out from his very busy schedule to talk to me on the final weekend about how it went, what makes the Festival tick and some of the standout moments.
We talked first about how the 25th Anniversary Celtic Connections had gone.
“It being the 25th Festival has been pretty special and it has gone really well. There has been a lot of looking back, meeting old friends, talking about what the journey has been for the Festival and a lot of musicians tried to encapsulate that in their shows this year. A good example would be Blazin’ Fiddles who for their show brought back together their original line up from 20 years ago, so on stage, there were eight of the finest Scottish Fiddlers of our generation which was a great advert for the confidence and maturity of Scottish music”.
Donald didn’t hesitate to pinpoint the ambitious Bothy Culture & Beyond with the Grit Orchestra, which recreated Martyn Bennett’s second album on a spectacular scale, as his standout event. You can read our review of the event here and, fortunately for those of us not there on the night, BBC Scotland filmed the whole show and you can watch it on BBC iPlayer until the end of the next month via this link.
“We had a big flagship event in the Hydro last week with an audience of 8000 people, a bespoke 100 piece orchestra, stunt mountain cyclist Danny MacAskill and aerial dancers. It was a bold statement for the Festival to put on a show like that. It was scary but a proud moment to see it all come together. We’ve been building towards being able to do something on that scale but it’s an event you would only do now and again, and we’ll never lose touch with the more intimate side of things as many people best appreciate folk music in much smaller rooms, with a much smaller number of people”.
In 25 years Celtic Connections hasn’t stood still and at the heart of what the festival is about are the ‘connections’, often made after hours in hotel bars, that lead to collaborations between diverse artists.
“Probably the music has become more adventurous, more experimental and I think that artists have begun to think of the Festival as being an opportunity to create something special outwith their normal performance. That is really important because a Festival like this can’t really sustain itself if nothing changes, so having musicians who are open to exploring all avenues of musical expression means that the audience stays constantly interested in what we’re doing. Collaborations being a key feature came out of the social element of the Festival. From that first year the concerts, from the likes of The Chieftains, The Battlefield Band, Sharon Shannon or Duncan Chisholm, were obviously the main focus but what was going on after the concerts was particularly interesting for the musicians. A Festival club was created at the Central Hotel where musicians met up after the concerts had finished and they would play tunes together and that’s when all these new ideas came about. A musician would phone up and say ‘I met this sitar player last night from Delhi and I’d really like to do something with him next year’ and that side of it has just grown and grown. We don’t get a lot of public funding for a Festival of this size – we rely on the best part of 75% from box office sales – but within the funding do get we concentrate on supporting new ideas and collaborations”.
Planning the next Celtic Connections starts almost straight away and the starting point isn’t the big headline stars but the musicians who come back every year.
“A really special part of the Festival is that there is a community of musicians that are firmly attached to it. The more I’ve worked on this Festival the more I’ve realised that it’s all about the energy of the musicians and I try to tap into that for every year. There are certain musicians that I would as a matter of course call-up in spring – people like Aidan O’Rourke, Mike McGoldrick and Karine Polwart – and say: ‘What are you up to’? ‘What projects are you thinking about for next year?’ We’re lucky because, unlike a typical weekend festival that has pressure to renew their headliners every year, but we have 18 days, with have plenty of time, to use the same artists in different ways. That builds up a close relationship with those artists. If I don’t call some artists I get death threats from them by email – of course they are only joking, I think.”
The sheer scale of the Festival – 2,100 musicians and more than 300 events in 18 days – sounds like an impossible job for one person to direct, never mind for a working producer and musician. Just on the last weekend, Donald played in three shows.
“I’m fond of saying that being a musician is my night job. It’s not easy fitting it all in but I’m the kind of guy that feels more comfortable when there are deadlines and I have to squeeze a lot of stuff into one day. It has though become a little bit too big for just the one person to do it all so this coming year I’m making a change in my role in the Festival, moving aside from exclusive artistic programming and I’m going to work on a small number of special events. I’ve been privileged to have an amazing support team and for Glasgow City to be happy to continue to accommodate my aspirations”.
You would think that picking a favourite moment from 25 years would be impossible but Donald knew exactly which memory stood out.
“I couldn’t possibly pick a live show – to pick one out would be like trying to pick a favourite brother or sister but as part of the Festival education policy, we have morning schools concerts where we fill the concert hall with 2000 really excited primary school and younger high school kids. We ask the artists to do a 20 to 30-minute set. A few years ago we had the fantastic jazz singer Bobby McFerrin in from the States to do a headline show and he was very happy to do a schools concert. It was magical – he walked off the stage and through the auditorium like a pied piper. The school kids were just in awe of this extraordinarily talented, striking-looking African American man singing his songs to them with no instrumentation. You could tell at that moment that there would be kids going home saying to their parents ‘I want to do more with music’.”
Most of us who go to Celtic Connections have some idea of what we are going to see, even if choosing between anything up to different 20 events each day is virtually impossible and we always wish we could go for longer. One story from this year’s Festival – nicely described on the Festival blog as ‘a veritable chain of serendipity’ – was of a Chinese student who only ended up there for the first time because the snow forced one of the musicians to travel by train and there were some tickets available for the opening concert. She wrote appreciatively on social media:
“I am a student from Manchester and I began to start a trip in Scotland from yesterday. At first, I was a little disappointed with the bad weather. However, I met a flute musician Michael McGoldrick on the train and he introduced me about this concert. My friend and I came to appreciate it today. It was an amazing concert I have never seen before and we were enjoying! I am Luck dog, if it did not snow, I cannot meet Michael, because he would choose to drive to Glasgow and I must miss such a wonderful concert, thank him, thank you all!”
As the blog said: In other words, McGoldrick was only on the train due to the weather – and thus Celtic music has a new convert. Long may that continue.