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Celtic Connections: The Scottish Underground
Stewart Smith , February 5th, 2016 09:48

In the first of two parts, Stewart Smith looks at the Scottish avant-folk scene and beyond at Celtic Connections festival. Part two coming next week.

Photo by Ali Roberts

A two-week extravaganza of roots music, Celtic Connections has in recent years been more receptive to Scotland's underground and alternative acts.

Sound of Yell, who released their debut album on Chemikal Underground in 2014, are something of a Glasgow avant-folk super-group, featuring musicians associated with Bill Wells, The One Ensemble, Alasdair Roberts and beyond: not so much a family tree, but a rhizome. Jones is perhaps best known for El Hombre Trajeado, his 90s post-rock group with RM Hubbert, but he's also in demand as a double bassist for various Scottish luminaries. Jones' compositions deftly weave post-hardcore influences with folk, jazz and improv. His finger-picked guitar figures are suggestive of a math-rock Martin Carthy, while the melodies, which are largely handed to flautist Georgina McGowan and fiddler Rafe Fitzpatrick have a bracing, North Atlantic airiness that nods to both Scottish and Scandinavian traditions. Abby Vulliamy's viola and music saw and Alasdair Roberts' droning hurdy gurdy further deepen the textures, while Alex Neilson's drums and Alex South's bass clarinet liberate the music with free-jazz eruptions.

Inspired by Edinburgh and the nearby Pentland Hills, 'And Blithely Spend The Gowden Day' is a seasonal song cycle from Drew Wright, aka Wounded Knee, and Daniel Padden of One Ensemble and Volcano The Bear. First performed at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, the show intersperses Wright's own songs with Scottish folk tunes, an unlikely Proclaimers cover, and recitations of 18th century poet Robert Fergusson's 'Auld Reekie'. In his own work, Wright tends to the minimal, accompanying his rich baritone vocals with drones or two-string guitar. Padden's inspired arrangements for clarinet, acoustic guitar and double bass (Stevie Jones again) open things right up, with elements of jazz, improv and Saharan guitar bringing colour and vitality to folk traditions. The warm and playful show ends with Wright taking to the floor to hand out bus timetables, as he sings about the best routes to the hills. It's a brilliant example of what the poet and artist Alec Finlay has termed the 'homely avant-garde', where tradition and experiment meet in a celebration of Scottish landscape and culture.

In a reprise of the 2011 Archive Trails project, Alasdair Roberts and former Tattie Toes drummer Shane Connelly present their idiosyncratic takes on traditional culture. They begin with a dramatic reconstruction of the initiation ceremony of the Horseman's Word, a secret society of ploughmen, blacksmiths and stable workers. Wearing a grotesque animal mask fringed with unruly wisps of hair, Connelly plays the initiate answering the occult riddles of Roberts' hooded horse-skull figure. Both comic and menacing, the performance is a stirring evocation of the old, weird Caledonia. The second half sees the pair reinvent the mummers' play Galoshins as a Punch and Judy style puppet show. A member of Sokobauno Puppet Theatre, Connelly works wonders with simple hand puppets, turning a swordfight into an intricate percussive jig and engaging in witty visual and verbal exchanges with Roberts' Bold Alexander.

The New Zealand city of Dunedin takes its name from Dùn Èidann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh. The Sister Cities, Tartan Ties project celebrates those links by teaming two fine Kiwi singer-songwriters – Robert Scott and Jay Clarkson - with Auld Reekie counterparts such as Withered Hand and Dean Owens. As a member of The Clean and The Bats, Robert Scott is an architect of the Dunedin Sound. In an acoustic setting, Scott's amiable songs miss the nervy garage pop energy of his bands. The mysterious, artful jazz-pop of Clarkson fares better in this context, and although she's suffering from jetlag, her all-too-brief set beguiles. The three-songs format of the first half may be egalitarian, but it sells the Kiwis short. We can catch the local acts any time, and Owens' blustery Americana and Hailey Beavis's cutesy Lisa Loeb folk-pop can't hold a candle to the Dunedin Sound. Then there's the mystifyingly well-regarded Withered Hand, who sounds like helium-voiced comic Emo Phillips parodying sensitive dude-bro troubadours. Supposedly witty lyrical allusions to The Vaselines sound arch and unearned, while his self-conscious confessionals ("I'd do anything to put my dick inside her/but that's not what she wants to hear.") just come across as icky. Compere Kevin Williamson's recitations of Robert Burns' dirtiest poems are equally off-putting: sleazy rather than transgressive.

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