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Phil Cunningham & Friends, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow - 21st Jan 2007
Review by Sue Wilson, Sunday Herald *** (3 Stars)

After last year's cancelled opening concert, the pressure was on for Celtic Connections to get things right in 2007. Luckily, the gods seem to be smiling.

BEFORE you ask, there is no discernible Celtic connection to English pop maverick Robyn Hitchcock and his latest band - featuring REM guitarist Peter Buck - other than their evident affection for the festival's home city. "Welcome to smug-free Glasgow," declared a grinning Hitchcock as they filed onstage, having chosen to end their tour here. (As for the festival's reasoning for inviting them, artistic consultant Donald Shaw "just thought it would be cool to have them hanging out for a couple of days".)

Then they launched into the pell-mell power-chords of Adventure Rocket Ship, from last year's debut Venus 3 album, Olé! Tarantula, immediately establishing the band's primary musical style: no-messing rock'n'roll, enhanced by artfully layered guitar work, infectiously hooky tunes and Hitchcock's arrestingly light almost boyish singing. The mix was leavened by forays into Hitchcock's extensive back-catalogue, both solo and as frontman of the Egyptians, taking in mellow jangly pop, scuzzed-up punk and 1960s-esque art-rock, the songs echoing everyone from The Cult to The Velvets, The Beatles to The Byrds.

Hitchcock's muse has always steered a sidelong course between the wide-eyed and the worldly-wise, and the Venus Three proved the ideal foil, with Buck's muscular, melodic plangency shaping a sound that could show many younger guitar bands a thing or two.

On the first night of Celtic Connections the fact that the rain stopped just in time for the opening torchlit procession seemed to be a sign that this year's festival would get off to a smoother start than last time round, and the positive vibes continued in abundance at the first show on the main stage, Hands Across The Water. The popular album of the same name, a charity release for victims of the 2004 tsunami, actually began life at Celtic Connections two years ago, inspired by the spirit of collaboration between musicians at the Festival Club, as witnessed by one of the project's main co-ordinator's, Nashville fiddler and singer Andrea Zonn. The central concept of teaming Celtic and Americana artists together has long been a key part of the festival's programming which made it double apt to bring the live premiere to Glasgow.

Some 25 musicians from the original Hands Across The Water cast were featured in the show, which combined tracks from the album with slots by some of the featured artists performing their own material. Standout numbers included a soulful duet between singer-songwriter Darrell Scott and Danu's Muirean Nic Amhlaoibh on This Beggar's Heart, the rich vocal chorus backing Beth Nielsen Chapman in the heartfelt hymn Be Still My Soul, and the high-lonesome harmonies of Jim Lauderdale, Maura O'Connell and Andrea Zonn in the opening This World's Family. O'Connell's big, blues-tinged voice also shone in a searing rendition of Cheryl Wheeler's hit Summerfly.

The predominantly smooth Nashville production values were offset by some cracking instrumental turns from the Celts, notably Flook's brilliantly break-neck version of Gordon Duncan's aptly-named Pressed For Time, and a showstopping set of reels led by Altan members Ciaran Tourish on fiddle and Dermot Byrne on accordion. And Donald Shaw began his first festival doing what he really loves best; instead of needless speechifying, he pitched in on piano and accordion, accompanying most of the set.

He was back on stage the next night, too, with accordionist Phil Cunningham, just one of the numerous guests in attendance for a sprawling but thoroughly enjoyable show. Cunningham has had his fingers in a prodigious number of musical pies down the years and took the opportunity to revisit many of them, including a powerful reprise of Hold Back The Tide, from the epic 1990 theatre production The Ship, splendidly sung by Wendy Weatherby. Along with Shaw, fellow instrumental stars including fiddlers John McCusker and Duncan Chisholm, Iain MacDonald on flute, Mike McGoldrick on Uilleann Pipes and Manus Lunny on bouzouki also featured prominently in some excellent tune sets, while Cunningham substantially boosted his tally of "friends" by bringing the entire Scottish Power Pipe Band on stage.

The highlight of the evening for most, however, was the appearance of bassist Martin Hadden, singer Andy M Stewart and guitarist/bodhran player Gordon Jones, in the closest there's likely to be a reunion of seminal Scottish outfit Silly Wizard. The absence of the band's other key member - Cunningham's late brother Johnny, who died three years ago - had already been marked by an exquisite duet with fiddler Aly Bain, on the slow air Bright Star In Cepheus. The remaining foursome's three numbers were not quite their finest hour, but Stewart was in characteristically fine voice and their presence certainly added to the evening's warm-hearted, ceilidh-style atmosphere.


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