Celtic Connections 2008: Harp Heaven

22 Jan 2008 in Festival, Music

Strathclyde Suite, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 20 January 2008

Maeve Gilchrist

INSPIRATION, as any musician will tell you, can come from any variety of sources. Life, dreams, places that have no names – enlightenment has no bounds. How odd is it then, that one of the most unique performances ever put together at Celtic Connections (an all-harp concert featuring twelve of the best players around) should be inspired by a cartoon. In this case, a Gary Larson ‘Far Side’ sketch – a strip where those entering heaven are handed harps, and those venturing into hell with accordions.

Corrina Hewat wasted no time in telling us how delighted she was to outsell their nemesis, the accompanying Accordion Hell concert taking place the following evening. Just as cheeky, another harp player (who shall remain nameless) boasted of using a friend’s accordion case to support her own harp. Accordions, it seems, are indeed the work of the devil.

Leading off with a slow, soft-as-pillows number, Maeve Gilchrist followed up with the first of many intriguing solo efforts. In this instance, a wild and windy love song entitled ‘Murk Murk’. Distortion crackled disturbingly through Gilchrist’s microphone, but the technical gremlins had disappeared by the time Germany’s Jochen Vogel (one of only two men in the line-up) enchanted the audience with a French tune that showcased his wondrous ability to bend notes on his harp. Rachel Hair, like Catriona McKay (named Instrumentalist of the Year at the Trad Music Awards in December) earned their wings with some daring tunes other harpers would be wary of attempting.

The second half saw the performers change from their all-white attire to something more commonly associated with those out on a Hen night. Indeed, in true devilish spirit, Mary MacMaster drew groans from the crowd by announcing she had performed “open harp surgery” on a broken string backstage. But that was before Laoise Kelly highlighted the plight to save the ancient Hill of Tara in Meath – a motorway is due to be built through the site – with a tune commissioned by The Distil Project.

Winding down the evening, it was both appropriate and heart-warming to see Mary MacMaster and Patsy Sneddon – two of the best Scottish harp players of all time – lead off with a tune dedicated to Kristen Nogues, a true innovator of Celtic harp playing who sadly passed away last year. You could almost sense her spirit in the room.

Overall, though, this was one of the most captivating and compelling concerts I have ever witnessed. One that should be repeated again – and often. I wonder if Gary Larson will ever know what magic he has unknowingly inspired [Mr. Larson is apparently a nifty jazz guitarist himself – Ed.].

© Barry Gordon, 2008