Scottish culture shows real signs of recovery at 11th-hour revival of Celtic Connections – Brian Ferguson

It is early afternoon in Glasgow’s east end, but it’s already standing room only in the Drygate Brewery’s upstairs venue.

Wednesday, 2nd February 2022, 4:55 am
The Old Fruitmarket has been among the venues able to host full capacity shows at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festiva since restrictoins were eased by the Scottish Government. Picture: Gaelle Beri
The Old Fruitmarket has been among the venues able to host full capacity shows at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festiva since restrictoins were eased by the Scottish Government. Picture: Gaelle Beri

Packed houses are nothing unusual when the Celtic Connections music festival is in full swing, but there was still something heartening at the size of the crowd taking up every available vantage point.

The turnout was impressive enough given that four unheralded acts were about to take to the stage for the finale of a “battle of the folk bands” contest.

But this was also one of the first full-capacity music gigs to be staged in Scotland since the restrictions announced before Christmas to tackle the new Omicron variant were eased.

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It was also one of the few events in a normally packed middle Saturday schedule to survive a dramatic scaling back of the festival.

A year ago, it was hard to imagine that Celtic Connections would be facing an even tougher time than having to put on shows in empty venues and broadcasting them online to keep the festival spirit alive.

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But the small team of organisers would not have banked on having to pull on the plug on events just weeks or even days before they were due to be staged due to the strict curbs on live events.

Manran performed at the Old Fruitmarket at the weekend as part of the Celtic Connections music festival in Glasgow. Picture: Gaelle Beri

In many respects, it would appear to have been easier and simpler for Celtic Connections to completely plug on this year’s event, as the organisers of other festivals like the Big Burns Supper and Burns and Beyond did when it became obvious they would have to wait until mid-January before finding out if they could go ahead or not.

When it seemed like Celtic Connections concerts were being cancelled every few hours last month, the fate of the event looked unimaginably grim.

What a tonic it was, just a couple of weeks later, to be able to make a full weekend of it at several full-capacity shows.

There were echoes of last summer, when the Edinburgh festivals were able to reboot after months of uncertainty over what restrictions would be in place, albeit it with performers taking to the stage in unfamiliar pop-up outdoor venues before socially distanced crowds.

Those tentative days were a far cry from the 11th-hour revival of Celtic Connections, following an announcement on January 18, on the lifting of restrictions just after the festival’s opening weekend.

The joy and relief etched on the faces of the musicians on stage at the Drygate, the Royal Concert Hall and the Old Fruitmarket was matched in audiences, many of whom were no doubt venturing to their first live music event since Celtic Connections was staged in 2020, just weeks before Covid struck.

For all the exuberance and euphoria around Celtic Connections at the weekend, there were numerous reminders that normality is still a long way off.

Yet the need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test at bigger events, the pleas to continue wearing face coverings and the noticeably slimmed down programme still felt like worthwhile trade-offs to get this hugely important festival back up and running again.

While there is still a long road to meaningful recovery ahead to Scottish culture, there are real signs that it might just have sparked into life in Glasgow.

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