First published in the Guardian on 21 January, 2018
“Because this is happening in a Gaelic song,” jokes Julie Fowlis, “we know it won’t end well.” Fowlis wears her tradition lightly and deeply at once. It’s a pivot that comes with assurance; the Gaelic singer/multi-instrumentalist is a seasoned TV presenter, a poster girl for Gaelic culture, a bonafide trad music star whose slick fifth studio album, Alterum, has just been released. Nothing to prove here.
The new album explores supernatural places and spaces: an orphic world of selkies, kelpies and whispering birds. And, like everything else at her Celtic Connections show, Fowlis treats the theme with a gentle touch. Her voice is flawless, glossy, just a bit breathy. A Gaelic version of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird sounds inescapably fey but elsewhere there is edge. “I’ll do something radical now,” she says; “I’ll sing in the other language.” A stripped-back Americana version of Anne Briggs’s Go Your Way gives her warble a touch of Emmylou Harris. Fowlis can do diva, but she keeps it sweet.
For the opening number — a beautiful seal song from North Uist — her voice sits softly against harmonium drones and spare fiddles. The band is two guitars, two fiddles (the excellent Patsy Reid and Duncan Chisholm), bass, reedy keys and, wisely, no drums. It sounds classy, spacious, understated, warm. Nothing breaks the mould here. Harmonies are safe, arrangements don’t do anything dangerous. Fowlis is a thoughtful, supremely capable front woman and her comfort zone is a congenial place to spend an evening.
Celtic Connections turns 25 this year. The folk festival that began as an implausible but big-hearted gathering during the dreichest month in the UK’s dreichest city is now a sprawling international jamboree, full of TV cameras and industry showcase events. The initial emphasis on the Celtic has arguably shifted to the Connections, with a rostrum of commercial acts whose pure folk credentials are tangental. That much is arguably valid and healthy: sign of a music that’s robust enough to test the form and flex with the times.
The soul of the thing is still there, amply, if you know where to look, but to gauge by the opening concert alone you’d think folk music had lost its voice. The anniversary gala was like an outsized schools concert, three-and-a-half interminable hours of innocuous, self-congratulatory naval gazing that felt rudderless and largely disengaged with matters sociopolitical. On trooped pipe band Tryst to play something rousing and unmemorable; on traipsed Glasgow indie star Louis Abbott to sing of breakups and bleeding radiators.
Given the state of the world, given the historic force of folk music to articulate the lives of the unprivileged, the disenfranchised, this gala seemed an epic missed opportunity to renew a mission statement for the genre. Folk has a relevance beyond couthy shout-outs to your gran and hackneyed quotes from Loch Lomond.
Highlights included a gracious account of Unquiet Grave from Siobhan Miller and Kris Drever and a slow, simple waulking song delivered with unfussy grace by a young group called Sian. But a gender problem prevails. Yes, the evening opened with a female piper (Robyn McKay) and featured a couple of terrific female supergroups (the fierce-spirited Cherish the Ladies, the infectiously convivial String Sisters), but mostly women enjoyed a stage ratio of around 1:13. Here’s hoping the notion of integration doesn’t take another 25 years.