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Julie Fowlis/Celtic Connections gala review – Gaelic song in full force

Nothing to prove … Julie Fowlis, right, at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.
Nothing to prove … Julie Fowlis, right, at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

‘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. 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.

On Alterum, Fowlis explores supernatural places and spaces – an orphic world of selkies, kelpies and whispering birds. And, like everything at her Celtic Connections show, she treats the theme with a gentle touch. Her voice is flawless, glossy and just a bit breathy. A Gaelic version of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird comes across as inescapably fey, but elsewhere the sound is edgier. “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 sing like a 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. Her band features two guitars, two fiddles (the excellent Patsy Reid and Duncan Chisholm), bass, reedy keys and, wisely, no drums. It sounds classy, spacious, understated and warm. Nothing breaks the mould: the harmonies are safe and the arrangements don’t do anything dangerous. Fowlis is a thoughtful, supremely capable frontwoman who stays in her comfort zone, and listening to her perform is a congenial way to spend an evening.

Celtic Connections turns 25 this year. The folk festival that began as a 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 tangential. It’s a sign of a genre that is robust enough to test the form and flex with the times.

The String Sisters performing in 2016.
The String Sisters performing in 2016. They were part of a 25th anniversary concert at Celtic Connections. Photograph: Douglas Robertson

The soul of the thing is still there, amply, if you know where to look, but to judge by the opening concert alone you’d think folk music had lost its voice. The anniversary gala two days earlier was like an outsized schools concert, three-and-a-half interminable hours of innocuous, self-congratulatory navel gazing that seemed rudderless and largely disengaged with sociopolitical matters. 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, and the historic force of folk music to articulate the lives of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised, this gala seemed an epic missed opportunity to renew a mission statement for the genre. Folk has a relevance beyond couthy shoutouts to your gran and hackneyed quotes from Loch Lomond.

Highlights included a gracious account of The 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 and the infectiously convivial fiddlers String Sisters), but women enjoyed an average stage ratio of around 1:13. Here’s hoping integration doesn’t take another 25 years.

Celtic Connections festival is at various venues in Glasgow until 4 February. Box office: 0141-353 8000. Julie Fowlis is at Stoller Hall, Manchester, on 24 January. Box office: 0333-130 0967. Then touring until 4 February.

This article titled "Julie Fowlis/Celtic Connections gala review – Gaelic song in full force" was written by Kate Molleson, for The Guardian on Sunday 21 January 2018 11.55am

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