If the 2011 edition of Celtic Connections was about anyone, it was RACHEL SERMANNI. Having been invited to play seven separate gigs in its 18-day schedule, few artists in the Glasgow festival’s 18-year history will have found themselves more in demand, certainly not one still in their teens who hasn’t even released any music.
It’s not difficult to see why she is such hot property. Coming on to the Old Fruitmarket stage clad in a red tartan dress alongside her glamorous trio of female backing musicians for an unadvertised appearance at the annual BBC Scotland TV special, it took barely 10 seconds for the capacity crowd to hush itself in reverance at this enchanting spectacle.
Hers may have been the third performance of a six-act bill but it was a show-stealer. Opening song Breathe Easy with its chorus of “We’ll swim knowing rain can’t touch us” is playfully innocent and graceful, and enough to have a pin-drop silent audience rapt. With her beaming smile and easy charm, Sermanni is a natural in front of the microphone, addressing her new admirers with “Hello, many people” in her Highland lilt.
Song To A Fox is a more melancholy offering but, like Bones, it showcases the musical talents of her bandmates on piano and fiddles. With each of the acts limited to just 20 minutes, Sermanni rounds off a four-song set with a solo acoustic cover of The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, beautifully transforming a party favourite into a touching lovestruck lullaby.
Opening the night was ANDY IRVINE, a mere half-century older in years, and from the school that folk songs ought to have two minutes of rambling explanation before they begin. His set of traditional storytelling material was livened up by the odd blast of harmonica.
FURNACE MOUNTAIN prove to be a real oddity, though an entertaining one. The Virginia-based stringed quartet, who look like they come from a town where time has stopped, embark on a frenzied instrumental start before completely changing pace with the tender folky ballad Ooh Belle, which makes great use of their two female members’ crackling, emotion-laced vocals. The two-minute finale of Sugar In the Gourd is downright ridiculous, however, and sees Danny Knicely ditch his mandolin to embark on a one-man jig on the spot, twirling and high-kicking his way to the end of the song and much laughter.
Following Rachel Sermanni are THE CREOLE CHOIR OF CUBA, a predominantly vocal group with 10 members, full of colourful costumes and expressive dancing, who endear themselves with their vibrancy and sweet attempts to communicate with the audience between songs with the most basic grasp of English. Although the harmonies of the five women are impressive, it does get a bit tedious, especially when the drowsy beat of Tande stretches into its seventh minute.
On the previous night at the same venue, the other Celtic Connections show The Pop Cop attended saw SHARON SHANNON’S BIG BAND hit by the withdrawals of Shane MacGowan and Imelda May.
While Irish accordion player Shannon’s own material is a bit too heavy on traditional reels, saved only by some interesting saxophone work and a waltz with a surprising shift up in pace, she does at least benefit from the variety of her guest vocalists. Last-minute replacement Heidi Talbot makes little attempt to disguise her nerves, warning the crowd, “If I make a balls of this I’ll do a dance… and I haven’t danced since I was 15″, but she weighs in with satisfying covers of Eddi Reader’s Everything and Tom Waits’ Time.
While fellow Big Band guests Eleanor McEvoy and Mundy turn the headline performance into a very Irish affair, Scottish support act THE PAUL McKENNA BAND deserve a mention. Despite the spruced-up quintet fancying themselves as a trad-folk boy band, albeit with a couple of members on the podgy side, they fill the Old Fruitmarket with their sweet harmonies and seem equally adept at both the slower ballads and uptempo barn dances.
*More video footage from Rachel Sermanni and other performers is available on the BBC Celtic Connections 2011 website
Rachel Sermanni – Eggshells
Rachel Sermanni – I Want You Back (live at Celtic Connections 2011)
Mundy and Sharon Shannon – Galway Girl