FolkWorld article by Sean Laffey:

Rhymers and Roots

Leo McCann & friends at Celtic Connections 2002

Impression at the River Clyde in Glasgow, photo by The MollisSeán Laffey attended a few nights of the 9th Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow and found it lived up to its subtitle, "from Shores near and Far".

Renfrew Street in the heart of Glasgow city centre runs from the bus station at one end to the Charring Cross interchange at the other, a walking distance of a mere ten minutes. Amble from one end of the street to the other and you'll pass the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, BBC Scotland, a large multiplex cinema, Scottish Ballet, a couple of churches including one of the Roman persuasion, an Art Gallery and behind the grated grandeur of a set of Rennie MacIntosh lampposts, the world renowned Glasgow College of Art. Shift a block parallel and you'll find the Scottish Piping Centre and for those with more of an eye for commerce the other parallel contains the famous Saucie Hall Street. No wonder Glasgow styles itself Scotland's City of Culture and no wonder that for nearly a decade now Celtic Connections has been an easy bedfellow in this welcoming city.

Picture the scene, it's a cold and very wet night, enough to prevent a crowd gathering, but the Strathclyde Suite at the Concert Hall is packed to near capacity for a concert with Leo McCann and Friends. Two years ago I saw Leo play a support act to Joe Burke at the Piping Centre, now he's fronting a show under his own name, a fact which rests on his tireless workload of performing (currently with Malinky) and a regime of teaching Irish music in Edinburgh.

Leo McCann, photo by Sean LaffeyWe settle down damply in our seats and as the light dims, from the far right hand side of the room comes the pagan beat of a lone bodhrán. Out of the shadows walks a strange man-beast, tied up in rustic calico and bleached hessian, standing over two metre tall, the apparition bearing the woven willow head of a bull, walks through the audience towards the stage, chanting to the thrum of the bodhrán. The audience don't know whether this is supposed to be funny or not, like scared children at bedtime, waves of nervous laughter break out in pockets. The figure takes centre stage and soon he his joined by two more spectres from a bygone age. These are the Armagh Rhymers, mummers from our darkest winters; they recite snippets of poetry, spatter out splashes of rich language, willow woven with songs and switches of jigs and reels. It's a magical manic experience, as we connect with our Celtic ancestors. In the middle of the group a diminutive box player has appeared, wearing a stumpy basket on his head, the face is less menacing but the music grows stronger with every bar. The lad under the bushel is Leo McCann and soon he will weave his own magic as the Rhymers go back to the shadows and he is left to run the show.

Over the next two hours, real friends with whom he's had the musical craic, shared the last of the dole money and fought over the solitary can of beans when the cupboard was nearly bare, join Leo on stage. There's sean nos singer Eoin Warner from Cork, Chris Drever in a fetching Peruvian hat, (which must turn a few grey locks back home in Orkney). Gavin Marwick, Malcolm Stitt, Aaron Jones, Paul Daly, Donny Donnelly, Eddy "Spoons" Scott, the a cappella group Macca from Dublin, Leo's brother Dermott on banjo (played with a sprained wrist, the lad having done the damage when trying to put on his cardigan…don't ask). There's inspired madness with Leo doing the Michael McGoldrick with the hip Hop DJ Dolphin Boy, and then when we thought there couldn't be any more, in comes Aiden McEwan. He's from Clare but lives I believe on the Island of Rhum, where he's a barman, he renders downbeat poetry and Leo adds a traditional backing on the whistle or box as the poem demands; while Aiden gives a deadpan cut on the life of a stranded emigrant who is always on the edge of respectability, with empty pockets and a head full of dreams.

It's a night to remember, great tunes, mighty craic, including a fiddler who lost his equipment a minute before he was due on stage, it could have been a disaster, but Leo carries us along with his infectious smile. In the end we've witnessed a musician coming of age, we've seen the vision of Celtic music from shores near and far and we know how it all connects back to the roots.

Later on in the festival there will be a host of huge names to enjoy, Paul Brady and the Liberty Bells, La Bottine Souriante, and Alasdair Fraser, but for now this is just perfect, it's like finding the real meaning of Christmas. Fair play to Celtic Connections for showcasing this Irish night and thanks to Leo a Co. for the musical imagination to carry it off.

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Photo Credit: (1) Glasgow impression - at the River Clyde, photo by The Mollis (2) Leo McCann, Photo by Sean Laffey

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