Grit Orchestra/Celtic Connections review – filmic fusion from an 80-strong band

Greg Lawson’s boisterous ensemble celebrate freedom and the Declaration of Arbroath while US duo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn add festive moonshine

Glasgow’s annual roots music jamboree Celtic Connections may have only just launched but the breakout star of the 27th edition has already emerged. A 10-meter-high sea goddess made of driftwood stalked the city as part of a mini festival celebrating Scotland’s coastal cultural heritage. The aptly named Storm – guided by puppeteers in fetching yellow sou’westers – strode from the Clyde to the Royal Concert Hall, causing ripples among awed Saturday morning shoppers. With her slo-mo gait, seaweed vestments and startling blue eyes, Storm cut a rather majestic dash.

Making waves … the Celtic Connections festival puppet Storm on walkabout.
 Making waves … the Celtic Connections festival puppet Storm on walkabout. Photograph: Michael McGurk/Rex/Shutterstock

The opening concert was similarly larger than life, featuring the return of the multifarious Grit Orchestra with a new six-part piece commissioned to mark the looming 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. That document was an assertion of Scottish autonomy, but bandleader Greg Lawson introduced the 70-minute suite – composed by six members of the ensemble – as a celebration of the concept of freedom rather than the currently prickly topic of independence.

Lawson inaugurated the Grit Orchestra to celebrate the legacy of the late Martyn Bennett, the young multi-instrumentalist who fused folk traditions with club beats and died from lymphoma in 2005.

Trailblazing spirit … Grit Orchestra players watched in the back row by Karen Matheson (on left) and Liz Lochhead.
 Trailblazing spirit … Grit Orchestra players watched in the back row by Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson (on left) and poet Liz Lochhead. Photograph: Gaelle Beri

Since debuting at Celtic Connections in 2015, this 80-strong band of strings, woodwind, percussion, pipers and vocalists has reinterpreted Bennett’s music to boisterous effect. Creating new work in the same trailblazing spirit feels like the next natural step. The result is an invigorating, filmic fusion of sometimes disparate influences that rattles along at a lively clip. Cellist Rudi de Groote’s overture begins with bongos and tubular bells before resolving into a waltz that morphs into a widescreen reel, while fiddler Patsy Reid pitches pipers against jazzy offbeat brass stabs to create a highly danceable hybrid. Capercaillie vocalist Karen Matheson cameos to sing a new arrangement of Oran do Loch Lall, a soothing detour before the Declaration’s centrepiece: an expansive fanfare section composed by fiddler Chris Stout and harpist Catriona McKay that picks up momentum like a runaway train and features the poet Liz Lochhead defining this declaration as a statement of “what you stand for, and what you will not stand for”.

Fraser Fifield’s atmospheric penultimate section features actor David Hayman booming over the PA before some evocative trumpet and flute solos. Then saxophonist Paul Towndrow brings it all home with a brass-heavy, swaggering big-band ending. After the interval, the orchestra revisits some of its persuasive Bennett remixes, including the crowd favourite Blackbird – an ingenious melding of Latin chanting and traditional folk – and a thumping rendition of the reliable floor-filler Chanter. As declarations go, it is a compelling one.

Virtuosity … Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn.
 Virtuosity … Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Photograph: Sterling Munksgard/Zuma Press/PA

Compared with the mob-handed Grit Orchestra, US husband-and-wife banjo duo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn offer a more stripped-down experience, interspersing their synchronised playing with slyly timed comic asides. The celebrated veteran Fleck manages to be both virtuosic and impressively laid-back, his fingers flying over his instrument as he blends classical etudes with twangier moonshine workouts. Washburn’s trump card is her singing voice, exquisite on the vintage protest song Come All You Coal Miners and the quavering Take Me to Harlan. For their encore, the pair lead the crowd in an a capella singalong of Keys to the Kingdom while their six-year-old son snaps his fingers and shyly shows off some dance moves. Perhaps Storm has some competition for breakout festival star after all.

 At various venues, Glasgow, until 2 February.


*A previous version of the article noted the Sea Goddess statue as being 10-foot. This has been corrected.

Source: Grit Orchestra/Celtic Connections review – filmic fusion from an 80-strong band | Music | The Guardian

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