The unpredictable and heartening spirit of collaboration came to the fore last night at Glasgow’s ABC as Lau and Crooked Still both delivered cracking solo sets showing them at the heights of their respective fields, all before they teamed together for a fascinating and at-times thrilling finale.
Lau were the first of the pair to take to the stage, the Scottish trad super-group capable of great things when they put their three heads together, forging a progressive and complex sound that places Celtic music firmly in the 21st century. They also do so with a buoyancy deserving of an audience far beyond restrictive genre boundaries.
Thankfully that crowd was out in force for this Celtic Connections performance, as Martin Green’s headstrong accordion playing bustled away furiously over Kris Drever’s guitar rhythms, before Aidan O'Rourke’s fiddle found its turn to shine in the spotlight, the trio's melodies twisting and turning from each other in joyous fashion. The tempo regularly varied, often knowingly tricksy and intricate before it would lunge into satisfyingly straightforward rhythms.
Drever's Orcadian vocals were sparingly thrown into the mix, providing a soothing anchor for the more gentle Winter Moon, while Horizontigo was another instrumental, one which – from a sweeping start – became a stomping riot of colourful melody, O'Rourke navigating its traverses to deliver another fantastic solo. A wry presence behind the microphone in between songs, Green introduced a “bit more of a Saturday night vibe” with a final wild number which may have the highlight of the entire night, its heady energy building up for a finale which brought with it a deserved reception rapturous applause.
Then introduced onto the stage, Crooked Still soon had their own set of songs to beguile the crowd with, and those less intense a proposition than Lau, in their own more gentle way the alt-bluegrass quintet from Boston ensured that they didn’t suffer by having to follow on from their Scottish peers (high praise in itself). An engorging union of banjo, violin, viola and double bass, their sound was also bolstered by the beautifully clear vocals of Aoife O´Donovan. (Who, as a fellow gig-goer pointed out, sounded not unlike Annie Lennox were she to excel in the interpretation of more traditional-sounding melodies.)
Crooked Still proved to be such a satisfying proposition that you could see why they’ve apparently been at Celtic Connections four times in the past six years, and among their arsenal they deployed the deceptively innocent-sounding murder ballad Henry Lee, Distress further enthralling with a subtle ebb and flow.
There was a great sense of anticipation as Lau were brought on for the supposed final song of the night, Crooked Still’s Locust in the Willow transformed into a superb flurry of virtuoso instrumentation, all eight performers operating at full swing, leading the crowd to whoop away with glee as the intensity built to a crescendo.
Off stage for a couple of moments before the expected encore, Green joked on their return: “We’re glad you got us back, because otherwise yesterday's rehearsal would have been entirely wasted…” A couple of rich, lush numbers followed, Drever and O´Donovan’s quite differing tones marrying sweetly together, and an intense rendition of Lau’s The Burrian finished the show with aplomb (even if it didn’t hit quite the peaks achieved at previous moments of the night). Green said earlier on of this unique collaboration: “It’s noise that you haven't heard anywhere else in the world, ever.” Let’s hope it isn’t the last of it.
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