Review: Bothy Culture & Beyond

First published in the Guardian on 28 January, 2018

The second track of Martyn Bennett’s 1998 dance album Bothy Culture features the word ‘aye’ muttered in multiple inflections. It’s a stroke of deadpan brilliance, spoken word stripped back to a single redolent syllable. Bennett never overdid things.

Three years ago Celtic Connections commissioned a full-scale orchestration of Grit, the last album Bennett made before he died of Lymphoma at 33. Now conductor Greg Lawson and his Grit Orchestra were back, this time upscaled to the biggest venue in town. Sound quality was never going to be priority here, a fact driven home by the appearance of trials cyclist Danny MacAskill as soloist. (Not as random as it sounds: MacAskill used the track Blackbird for his global hit video The Ridge.)

Of course the nuances were obliterated in the chasmal acoustic. Gone the fine textural stuff, gone the angular weft of the fiddle lines. But the forceful hit of Fiona Hunter singing Blackbird could cut through any sonic chaos; Innes Watson delivered the spoken word with heroic understatement; David Hayman read Sorley MacLean’s beautiful poem Hallaig with gravelly clout. And the sheer energy was joyous.

Even the stunts were endearing. MacAskill has a broken kneecap so grinned sheepishly after one careful lap around the arena; instead we got the aerialist Aisling ní Cheallaigh, tumbling miraculously high above the orchestra. A huge cardboard cutout of the Cuillin stood as backdrop — neat updating for a country touting the misty-mountains look since Walter Scott. Like Bennett’s music, like a slice of modern Scottish culture, the whole night was a fusion of the deep-rooted and the brazenly off-kilter. Somehow it worked.