The often maligned folk-rock genre experienced not so much a renaissance as a complete reinvention at the hands of two bands here with quite difference approaches to playing tradition-derived music with the sort of beat that gets folks out of their seats and on to their feet.
Pipes, whistle and cittern player Ross Ainslie released one of 2013's strongest Scottish roots albums, Wide Open, and with a band largely featuring the same players he reprised much of it, illustrating the highly imaginative quality of his writing and arranging. This is tunes with a groove and an ensemble that can build effectively and dramatically, and with Ainslie's thrilling piping especially it often suggested the sound his mentor, the late Gordon Duncan might have made given similar circumstances.
While Ainslie works with melodic variety given rhythmic heft, with Ollam the real diversity goes on underneath the superb, brilliantly synchronised double whistle lines of John McSherry and Tyler Duncan. Their drummer, Michael Shimmin and bass guitarist Joe Dart play with apparently telepathic understanding, putting out now crisp, precision punctuation, now a loose, Caribbean feel, now serious heavyosity as Rhodes electric piano offers moody colours and an amplified acoustic guitar chops, picks and thrashes.
One complaint might be that McSherry could have played uilleann pipes more because with his improvising ability soaring over the rhythm section's powerful inventiveness, the effect could be beyond exhilarating. As it was, one particular passage where Shimmin opened up his kit and the whistles unfolded a slow glissando Ry Cooder would have been proud of was worth catching alone and the encore in which Irish brogue romanced Latin American metre was delicious.
In the Tradition
St Andrew's in the Square, Glasgow
Celtic Connections long ago broadened its musical horizons, and continues to do so. Yet at its heart the festival remains true to the music that formed the basis of its early programmes and St Andrew's in the Square hosts a fair-sized portion of it.
Following the withdrawal due to illness of one of Friday's headlining attractions, Shetlander Jenna Reid, a kind of master and apprentices quality emerged in the opening fiddle concert as Caithness's Gordon Gunn occupied the main spot in a bill alongside Invernessian Graham Mackenzie and Reid's fellow Shetlander Ross Couper.
At 23, Mackenzie doesn't look much different from the wee lad who lit up a Scottish Fiddle Festival weekend some years ago, but his playing has matured and if he seemed a little nervous here and didn't quite achieve the flow he's capable of, he acquitted himself well across a variety of tune styles. Nerves aren't a problem for Couper and his partner, guitarist and flautist Tom Oakes, as they play with plenty of gusto. A little more persuasiveness mightn't have gone amiss, though.
Working with the subtle, inventive harmonic know-how of Brian McAlpine (keyboard) and Marc Clement (guitar), Gordon Gunn displayed a mighty repertoire of tones and tunes from a variety of sources. An original air dedicated to his father elicited a lovely near-viola-like timbre. A medley opening with Irish accordionist Mairtin O'Connor's Shop Street suggested the musical offspring of Scott Skinner and the gypsy swing tradition, and the Blue Reel had blue notes indeed as Gunn played with superb clarity, easy mobility and a touch that emphasised his feeling for his material.