Celtic Connections 2016: Opening Weekend with Sturgill, Patty and Ron

If they say that great art comes from the deep dark wells of sadness then you'd be forgiven for getting the impression that Sturgill Simpson's follow up to the iconic "Meta-Modern Sounds in Country Music" will eclipse even  that wondrous album. According to an interview from Rolling Stone the new one is 'in the can' but from the moment he walked onstage at the O2ABC on Friday night (Jan 15th) there seemed to be something amiss, a melancholy even, in his demeanour. Sturgill has been on the road a long time with the "Metamodern" album and perhaps all the touring is taking it's toll?

His recent shows on this European tour have been solo affairs but as the snow fell in Glasgow here, Sturgill was reunited with his backing band, and as ever the songs fairly crackled along when they are in tandem but when Sturgill was left to the stage alone he seemed tired. However, encouraged by an apperciative Celtic Connections audience he overcame the distraction of some inebriated customers falling out with each other. Thankfully the venue secuirity nipped any potential fisticuffs in the bud and Sturgill's recent travails with fighting fans back home in the US was thankfully not repeated in 'The Friendly City' as the local council refers to it. The altercation seemed to spur the man on and we were left with a wonderful conclusion to the set, his solo version of Roy Orbison's "Crying" which he managed to deliver in his own initable style. 

Earlier we were thoroughly entertained by the big reverb-driven guitar and voice of Lera Lynn in support. Overcoming the frying of electrical pedal boards due to the different voltage we use here in UK, Lera showed us a brief glimpse of the talent that landed her a role in True Detective- Season 2 as songwriter/performer under the direction of T-Bone Burnett and in collaboration with Roseanne Cash.

In contrast to the headline act on Friday night, at the City Halls on Saturday (Jan 16th) Patty Griffin floated onto stage and she seemed totally at ease with the world. Showcasing several songs from her latest album "Servant of Love" plus older songs like 'Ohio' and 'Truth No. 2'  Griffin was in charge of the stage and between songs talked of how she really enjoyed her time doing the Transatlantic Sessions at last year's Celtic Connections festival, how nervous she was working with Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, coming as they do from a different tradition but that the experience had given her a new love for Scotland and with that she has the whole of the audience in the palm of her hand. 

Ably assisted by her band, led on guitar by David Pulkingham with the exceptional vocal harmonies of drummer Conrad Choucroun, the versatile bassist Billy Harvey all allowing Grifin to move effortlesslyfrom her Gibson guitar to piano to microphone to reveal her story songs about love, spirituality and, social and environmental justice. She concluded her set with her take on the St Francis of Assisi hymn, 'All Creatures of Our God and King' from her seventh album "Downtown Church" and with that the delighted patrons departed into the snowy Glasgow night with rosy smiles on their faces. 

Sometimes there is something to be said for a fine beard, an strong appearance on a much-loved TV network drama (Nashville) and a great profile picture. Ron Pope,  accompanied by his muscular band The Nighthawks, tried to carry a less than half full O2 ABC on Sunday (Jan 17th) but maybe ultimately the size of the venue was against him. Enthusiatically a coterie of his young fans at the front sang along with  from his extensive back catalogue which showed some fine lyrical turns but a lack of familiarity with his work meant he became another tab in the 'needs further investigation' file. There are talented players and an engaging frontman so given the success of the talent spotters in the Celtic Connections offices I fully expect to see Pope and his compadres return to a fuller house and with songs we all want to hear and sing.

All in all a great introduction to the delights to come......I await Lucinda Williams for my next dip in the Winter festival waters...