By Sue Wilson for Northings
IT MIGHT seem a totally insane idea, transporting the entire 17-strong line-up for Celtic Connections’ flagship Transatlantic Sessions concerts all the way up to play in Shetland, in between their two sellout dates in Glasgow – not least since the festival’s artistic director, Donald Shaw, was one of the band – but it turned out to be a wholly inspired one.
Shetland’s 20,000-strong population includes a lot of extremely devoted and discerning Americana fans – as well as fans of quality music in general – and not a few world-class exponents of US roots styles, so it was small wonder that the gig, funded as part of the ongoing Scotland’s Islands promotion, sold out in record time, with fully five percent of that population excitedly packed into the islands’ largest venue. Shetland is also arguably the perfect locale in which to explore and celebrate the musical interplay between America and the British Isles, past and present, positioned as it is at a literal transatlantic crossroads.
Besides the premier-league calibre of each individual musician involved, a key element in the Transatlantic Sessions’ long-running success – both the Celtic Connections live version and the BBC Scotland/Pelicula Films TV series – is the adroit balance between regular participants in the project, led by its joint musical directors, Shetland fiddle supremo Aly Bain and dobro legend Jerry Douglas, and first-timers.
Among the latter here were Wailin’ Jennys singer and banjo player Ruth Moody, majestic-voiced Mavericks frontman Raul Malo and the brilliantly original Irish singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke. Besides Bain, Douglas and Shaw, other old lags (I’m sure they’ll pardon the expression) included the Scottish vocal dream-team of Karen Matheson and Eddi Reader, and the equally mouthwatering ‘house band’ of fiddler John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick on uilleann pipes, flutes and whistles, revered US guitarist Russ Barenberg and his similarly sublime Irish co-instrumentalist John Doyle, double bass deity Danny Thompson and drummer James Mackintosh.
Also in the veteran category, and doubling up on vocal and instrumental duties, were Grammy-winning fiddler, mandolinist and singer Tim O’Brien, and the vibrantly eloquent old-time specialist Bruce Molsky – who brought the house down with the comment, while introducing a lonesome logging-camp ballad: “I heard there used to be loggers here in Shetland – but I guess they did a bit too good of a job.”
Thanks to this mix of established camaraderie and mutual familiarity with the shot-in-the-arm freshness supplied by each year’s debutants, the Transatlantic Sessions original strapline – “the ultimate backporch session” – has only held truer as time has passed. Add to this all the 2012 performers’ excitement at being in Shetland, be it for the first time or as previous initiates into the islands’ unique charms, together with the audience’s rapturous reception – culminating in two standing ovations – and the result was a truly unforgettable night.
With the now traditional quasi-lounge area set up in a back corner, all the performers were onstage throughout the whole show, visibly delighting in the numbers they weren’t actively contributing to, with “spare” singers repeatedly inspired to jump up and chime in on backing harmonies – even when this clearly hadn’t been rehearsed, with choruses of up to six outstanding voices forming in the course of a song.
This year’s range of participants also richly expanded the stylistic palette to encompass everything from the blissfully distilled romance of Malo on the old Neil Sedaka hit, ‘I Found My World In You’, to Michael McGoldrick’s spine-tingling delivery of the Irish slow air ‘I Am Asleep’; from the ensemble’s round-robin rendition of ‘This Land is Your Land’, in honour of Woody Guthrie’s centenary, to a stunning, genre-roaming solo workout from Douglas which opened the second half.
Other highlights included Moody’s self-penned selection from her debut solo album The Garden, particularly its beautiful title track, and O’Rourke’s compelling Irish/calypso/country-pop composition ‘Lightning Bird Wind River Man’, while the arrangements were distinguished throughout not only by their crème de la crème instrumental calibre, but their judiciously varied deployment of lushness and sparseness.