Donald Shaw

1 Nov 2006 in Music

Making Connections Worldwide

DONALD SHAW is best known for his role in Capercaillie, but also took on the role of programming the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow this year from Colin Hynd, the festival’s only previous director, who has moved over to programming the City Halls complex in Glasgow. Northings spoke to Donald ahead of the programme launch on 1 November.

NORTHINGS: Donald, you are a notoriously busy musician and record producer – whatever possessed you to take on this job as well?

DONALD SHAW: Good question. I cleared a lot of work anyway because I felt it would be quite time-consuming, but I don’t think I got close to imagining just how much work it would be. I have enjoyed it though, and more than anything I’ve enjoyed connecting with the musicians I’ve been booking.

N: Have you taken over Colin Hynd’s role entirely?

DS: My official title is Artistic Consultant. To all intents and purposes it’s probably much the same, but the idea behind it was to test the waters a bit and see how it went from both my side and the festival’s, so rather than giving me the full responsibility, they came up with the idea of consultant. The point of that is that I don’t have to concern myself with the full management of the festival, which Colin did have to do. So my focus has been very much on programming the artists, and Jade Hewat, who was Colin’s assistant, has taken on the role of festival manager, so she has been looking after the logistics of the thing and contacts and all of that side of it. That seems to have been working fine so far – they are a really good team of people to work with.

We’ll have some very strong collaborations where artists can do something out of the ordinary. It’s a matter of raising the bar and doing something a wee bit different

It’s easy to forget what a monster this festival actually is. It’s such a huge event, and I have nothing but respect for what Colin has achieved over the years. They have tried to grow the festival a little bit further every year, and we now have over 200 major shows over the 19 days.

N: Have you done anything similar before?

DS: I suppose the closest I have come would have been the first two or three series of ‘Tacsi’, which was a Gaelic arts programme on television. For that they would give me a budget and ask me to put together collaborations for the show. I also have a long relationship with Celtic Connections. I’ve definitely performed at all of them in some capacity, and I’ve been involved in putting together some bigger projects for them, like ‘Harvest’ with Fèis Rois a couple of years ago.

N: And you won’t be short of names in your address book, either.

DS: One of my own reservations in taking this on was that I might be open to accusations of nepotism because I would be including artists that I have close connections with, either through the band or vertical Records, but as they pointed out, all these people have played the festival lots of times anyway. Karen [Matheson, Donald’s wife] is doing a gig this year, but I should point out that had been booked before I came into post in May. There were a few other things I inherited, and we are also honouring the concerts that had to be cancelled when the City Halls were not quite ready for last year’s festival.

N: That brings us to last year’s problems with high-profile cancellations. Did you sit down with the team and run an inquest on what went awry and how to avoid it again?

DS: Absolutely, yes, and a lot of the things that did happen are down to the ambition and size of the festival. Things inevitably fall through at times. I felt they were particularly unlucky with losing the opening night late in the day, and then the City Halls not being ready, but we did sit down at the outset and looked at what had gone wrong and how we could address the issues. I was able to point out things that could be done better from a musician’s point of view, and I hope we have addressed the issues.
N: So you are happy that everything has been nailed down this year?

DS: Yes, although you can’t legislate for everything. Just as an example of how things can run out of your control, we had a panicky couple of weeks with the recent security clampdown on the airlines. Agents in the USA were calling me and saying, look, we don’t know if our artists will be travelling to Europe in the next six months, so don’t announce anything until we see what happens. If that kind of thing happens there isn’t much you can do, but as far as we are concerned, this is a major international event, and it has to run in the best way possible.

N: Next year is also the Year of Highland Culture – are you running any special events related to that?

DS: No, not as such, although of course there is lots of Highland music in the festival, but there isn’t a H2007 special presentation.  We do have the Scotland Showcase running as usual in the middle weekend, which H2007 is helping to fund, and as part of that there will be a concert on the Thursday night that will be going out live on Radio Scotland. We have pulled together around ten of the best bands and performers going around at the moment, and without even thinking about it consciously, probably 70% of that show is Highland music or musicians.

N: You mentioned recently that you were planning a bigger than usual focus on Americana this year – is that the case?

DS: Very much so. I had been aware that there was a higher profile in recent times for artists coming out of the States who were embracing, or had connections with, Scottish and Irish music, bands like The Ducks. A couple of years ago at the festival Nashville singer Andrea Zorn was over here with the Alison Brown Quartet just after the Tsunami disaster, and she had been talking then about putting together a charity record to raise funds for the Tsunami relief. She had spoken to a lot of artists while she was at the festival, and that recording was subsequently put together with lots of collaborations between American country and folk artists and Irish and Scottish bands. It was largely done by sending round tracks and people would then add their bit to them.

The opening night concert will be a live realisation of that album, under the title ‘Hands Across the Water’. We’ll have people like Darrell Scott, Mindy Smith, Jim Lauderdale, Solas (who are making their debut at the festival), The Ducks, and also Altan and Flook and various others. That will kick off the American strand that runs right through the festival.
N: Is that raised awareness down to the ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ syndrome?

DS: I think so. The American record buying public seemed to discover a lot of their own music through the success of that soundtrack. They didn’t seem to be aware of what was in their back yard all along, and where it came from. We have some bluegrass-influenced acts, a number of which will be new to Celtic Connections’ audiences, but I think they will hear the connection. We’ll also have Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the Jerry Douglas Band, and also the Klezmatics from New York, so as well as the old-timey, rootsy stuff, we also have some of the more jazz-influenced contemporary stuff as well. We’ll also have some more country-influenced artists, including Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac Show, which is her tribute to her father and the Carter family, and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

I had been speaking to Jon Landau, who is Bruce Springsteen’s manager, about including Springsteen’s Seeger sessions, but for various reasons that didn’t work out, which is a shame. I was struck by the fact that Springsteen was doing these stadium shows singing music by Peter Seeger that had been inspired by people like Matt McGinn, and the whole cycle that implied.

One other reason that I decided to embrace the American link very heavily this year is that from March next year it is going to be much more difficult for American artists to get into this country, from a visa point of view, which is already the case for UK artists wanting to go to America. That has been a real headache for us in the past couple of years, and involves individual interviews and a lot of artists getting turned down, and the UK government are putting the same kind of restrictions in place, so maybe next year it wouldn’t be easy or even possible to do it on this level. It’s mainly security related, but the visa process requires you to prove that you are doing something artistically that no one else can do, so that theoretically you are not taking work a home-based musician could do.

N: Any other specific strands we should look out for?

DS: We’ll have some very strong collaborations where artists can do something out of the ordinary. A good example would be Fiddlers Bid International, where the band will be working with a number of extra guests, which is one I’m really looking forward to. The reunion show of Solas with their original line-up is also exciting. We have tried to use the Old Fruitmarket as a major venue where I can present very strong double bills with acts on the same artistic level but maybe from a different tradition. We have a concert with Karine Polwart and Seth Lakeman, for example, and we have the Breton big band Skolvan, which is a kind of Breton equivalent of La Bottine Souriante, and they are doing a double bill with Shooglenifty, who will also have guests. It’s a matter of raising the bar and doing something a wee bit different.

We started talking about doing a night with flute players, and I asked Jean-Michel Veillon from Brittany and Michael McGoldrick who their flute heroes were. They both spoke about Hariprasad Chaurasia, who you probably know from his records with John McLaughlin. After a lot of searching I eventually reached him through his sister in the Punjab, and he is coming over, and will be featured with Michael, Jean-Michel, Iain MacDonald and an amazing Chinese flute player. I don’t know quite what will happen that night, but I’m betting it will be fantastic.

What was lovely about it was that Jean-Michel was very dubious if I would be able to find him, far less persuade him to come to Glasgow and work with the other guys, but when I tracked him down, he said he would be delighted and mentioned that he was a fan of Jean-Michel’s playing. He nearly fainted when I passed that on! I think what you always find in these festival situations is that there is always a huge amount of respect between the musicians, and whatever hassle there is with agents and travel and contracts and all the rest of it, there is rarely if ever a problem with the musicians.

When Hariprasad came on board, I started to feel well, we can do anything here. We are doing a big Burns Mela as an Indian-Scottish night, and he is going to play in that show as well. I was trying to get singer Sheela Chandra for that concert with no success, then I e-mailed her to say he would be playing, and she said I’ll be there.

N: Are you performing much yourself this year?

DS: I’m trying to keep a lower profile in performing terms. I’ll be doing Transatlantic Sessions on the final weekend – just try and stop me from sitting next to Jerry Douglas! Capercaillie aren’t playing it this year, but Karen is doing a solo show, so I’ll probably do that, and there are a couple of other things people have asked me to do as well.

N: Thanks, Donald, and good luck with your first festival.

DS: Cheers.

Celtic Connections announce their 2007 programme on 1 November. The festival runs from 17 January until 4 February 2007 in Glasgow.

© Kenny Mathieson, 2006