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Flecks of Genius

The other night I took a call from respected, nay revered Scottish harmonica virtuoso Donald Black. I have spoken with Donald on the phone before and we had planned to meet up but it had never come to anything. This time because of my own connection with the National Harmonica League, Donald was phoning to offer a complimentary ticket to the opening night of the annual Glasgow music festival, Celtic Connections

Anyone unfamiliar with Donald’s music, it is mainly traditional Gaelic/Celtic folk, much of it based on the pipe tradition. Indeed Donald was largely responsible for Hohner producing the ‘Highlander’ and altered tuning instrument particularly suited to the playing of pipe tunes.

Here he is in action:

However it wasn’t Donald who was performing last night, it was the inestimable Béla Fleck and the Flecktones including not only a superb pianist but also possibly the best harmonica player who has ever lived, Howard Levy One of the finest bass players in the world today Victor Wooten and Wooten’s brother, Roy Wooten or “Futureman” on drums and percussion. When I say drums, he has a kit on stage but most of his drum and percussion sounds come via an instrument he developed himself the “drumatar” which looks a bit like a mandolin with a neck at the wrong angle. Futureman is obviously one of music’s characters, choosing to dress in a buccaneer’s outfit. He wouldn’t have looked out of place with Adam and the Ants.

Fleck himself is a banjo player. Fleck has received Grammy nominations for performances in the jazz, bluegrass, pop, spoken word, contemporary Christian, gospel, classical, and country categories—more categories than any other musician.

The gig last night was split into two halves. The first consisted of the band going through some of their own material. Here is a flavour of that:

This was a collection of virtuoso musicians delivering a bewildering selection of……….I’m trying to describe it……..jazz sums it up best I suppose. Levy, his first time playing in Glasgow and looking half his age, pulled out every musical trick in the book. Whilst some of it descended into almost musical self abuse, it was incredible. I think I can safely say I have never witnessed a more skilled collection of musicians sharing a stage.

Just before the interval, fiddler Casey Driessen was introduced. His playing and the call and response stuff between him, Fleck and Levy was just the most amazing and intricate artistry.

It hardly seemed possible that the second half would surpass the first but surpass it did. Irish vocalist Karan Casey, and Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes were joined by Abigail Washburn (Fleck’s partner), the aforementioned Driessen and flautist/piper Michael McGoldrick whom I had seen play with Mark Knopfler last year.

It was spellbinding.

It was sublime.

It was just the most incredible fusion of folk, jazz, blues and celtic music that you could imagine – all played by musicians at the very top of their profession.

After the gig, Donald and a couple of friends he had brought along suggested we go to a bar in the west end where there was a folk/jam night going on. It was the perfect end to the night as fiddlers, accordionists and penny whistle players went through a selection of Irish and Scottish jigs, reels and airs. Donald and I both got a chance to play a few numbers and the assembled musicians were very gracious in their praise.

I’m off to a rather different night at Celtic Connections on Sunday for the Gerry Rafferty memorial concert which will feature Roddy Hart, Rab Noakes, The Proclaimers, Ron Sexmith, Maria Muldaur and Barbara Dickson amongst others.

Looking forward to that and if it is a mere patch on last night’s entertainment, that’ll do me!

Footnote: Thanks too to Roger Trobridge for organising the tickets and introducing Donald and I. Roger is chairman of the NHL.

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