Gaels Heat Up Glasgow

FEATURE by Willard Manus

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND -- How dark and dreary is Glasgow in January? When the music festival CELTIC CONNECTIONS celebrated its opening, it did so with a torchlight procession through town--at mid-day!

The festival is the best medicine for Glasgow's gruesome winter weather. Launched in 1994 in only one venue that attracted a scant 33,000 people, Celtic Connections has become, in the space of a decade, the largest winter music festival in the world. This year, over 100,000 people were in attendance, filling ten venues over a two-week period and enjoying hundreds of artists not just from Scotland but around the world.

The emphasis at the fest is on folk music with deep roots in Scottish and Irish (read Gaelic) culture, but the boundaries are stretched to include blues, jazz and gospel from America, Cajun bands from Nova Scotia, klezmer and gypsy performers from East Europe, even throat-singing from Tuva, Russia. When you add original symphonic music, vocal, bagpipe and fiddle workshops, and late-night jam sessions to the mix, you get one hell of a hootenanny, one with a unique character and vibe.

Sponsored by a medley of benefactors ranging from the Scottish Arts Council to the BBC to the Sunday Herald, Celtic Connections must now be considered a rival to the Edinburgh Festival, which is held in the month of August, leaving its sister city of Glasgow to make hay while the sun doesn't shine.

But as one local commentator said, "Stop moaning about the weather, the Gaels in deepest, darkest January will warm you up."

Here are some of the events I caught during my recent stay in Glasgow:

PRIVATE PEACEFUL, AN EVENING WITH MICHAEL MORPURGO. The latter, a prize-winning novelist, read from his young-adult novel Private Peaceful, which tells the story of a young English lad caught up in the brutality of WW I. Trapped in a trench on the Belgian front, he endures round-the-clock shelling and small-arms fire--and the insane orders of British officers who keep sending their troops on ill-fated, suicidal charges against enemy lines. When the lad's brother snaps under the pressure and refuses to obey, he is charged with insubordination and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Morpurgo's powerful anti-war tale was buttressed by an a capella trio, Coope, Boyes & Simpson, whose original songs, also on anti-war themes, blend perfectly with the author's prose, making for a compelling and unforgettable presentation.

Next I went to the main auditorium at Royal Concert Hall to catch DR. JOHN, who came all the way from New Orleans to perform solo before a huge and appreciative audience. Dr. John played and sang for a generous two hours, offering voodoo blues, plus smatterings of Professor Longhair, parodies of pop song ("Blue Skies," "Accentuate the Positive"), and honky-tonk versions of "Mess Around" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Shades of Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis.

A day later I walked to the 150-seat Tron Theatre to catch an evening of Appalachian mountain music, played by the banjo-pluckin' Debby McClatchy (whose ancestors came from Scotland) and by Tom Sauber, Alice Gerrard & Brad Leftwich, a trio with a fierce love of classic country music. It was foot-stompin' fun.

On a snow-filled Monday night, I attended a free BBC concert held in The Arches, the subterranean mall beneath Glasgow's Central Station which is filled with restaurants, cafes and theatre spaces. Four different bands were on the bill, three of which specialized in Gaelic music. Featuring flutes, whistles, fiddles and pipes, the bands turned the catacombs into a party scene (known in Gaelic as a ceilidh).

The star of the night, though, was the singer Mercedes Peon, a Spanish dynamo (from Galicia) who sings, dances, and plays tambourines and bagpipes with incredible virtuosity and intensity. A combination of Janis Joplin and Edith Piaf, she blended elements of folk, rock and reggae into her 40-minute set, which was received with roars of approval and appreciation.

Salm is the Gaelic word for psalm. The salm tradition in Scotland--unaccompanied, call & response liturgical singing--is a long and hallowed one, kept alive by small groups of parishioners, mostly in the isolated Hebrides islands. Amazingly, a similar kind of line singing takes place in the American deep south, in Black churches where Gospel rules the Sabbath. The two different styles came together in a candle-lit concert at 800-year-old Glasgow Cathedral. First the Scots sang, then some Alabamans; finally both choral groups joined forces, alternating between English and Gaelic, raising their pure, beautiful voices in unity and brotherhood, praising God with ancient songs in an ancient temple.