Siobhan Wilson sends spirits soaring in Glasgow with a heavenly set at a sold-out Mackintosh Church as part of the Celtic Connections festival.
It’s official – audience figures for the 25th anniversary of Celtic Connections were the highest recorded for the festival. Over the 18 days, there were 130,000 attendances at 350 concerts, workshops and events and over 2300 artists from over 30 countries performed across its 28 stages. Those are some impressive figures. However, nothing impresses quite like the shows themselves and Siobhan Wilson playing the architectural gem that is The Mackintosh Church, accompanied by a string quartet, promised to be something special.
Siobhan Wilson doesn’t disappoint. Stepping onstage to a polite flourish of applause she begins with the title track from her divine second album ‘There Are No Saints’ and you can hear the breath being taken away from those assembled. Her voice soars and swoops and she has to hold the microphone at some distance as her powerful but angelic voice fills the vaulted room. Playing the album in its entirety – from start to finish – she moves into the opening cello throb and the reverberating riff of ‘Whatever Helps’. I adore this step into darker sounding territory with the added intensity from the string section.
The next few songs on the set list have delicate melodies – ‘Dear God’ with its cutting lyrics, ‘Paris Est Blanche’, the stunning ‘Disaster and Grace’ and the beautiful cover of ‘J’attendrai’. The silence is reverential and Wilson comments that she’s “waiting for someone to drop a pint or something” to break the hush that is desperately kept – coughs are urgently stifled, cans of drink sit waiting to be opened until the next round of applause.
She then announces that she’s got a new guitar pedal, which indicates a change of pace for the fuzzy and spiky ‘Incarnation’. This is Wilson at her creative best – taking her celestial voice and combining it with a grittier accompaniment. The breathy waltz of ‘Make You Mine’ takes us into the warm fuzz of ‘Dark Matter’ before the self-confessed “experimental” ‘Dystopian Bach’. Wilson says that this is her favourite and it’s also one of mine – simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. The set ends – as the album does – with ‘It Must Have Been The Moon’, which reminds me of a late-night lullaby that naturally rounds off the album and the set.
An encore of older favourites – ‘Terrible Woman’ and ‘All Dressed Up’ – closes to rapturous and persistent applause. “I was hoping that you’d do that because we’ve got a little surprise” Wilson confesses as she takes to the stage with The Demi Octet one final time. As the first couple of lines are sung to a soaring backing of strings, I suddenly realise that she is covering one of my favourite Richard Thompson songs – ‘Beeswing’. You could argue that she’s playing to the crowd – performing a song by the father of folk-rock to an audience who bought tickets for what is mostly still a folk festival. I think it’s brave as expectations, by this point in the evening, are sky high. It’s different – softer – but still emphasises the feelings of love, longing and regret. The standing ovation that follows the last shimmering note says it all.
Throughout this set, it’s both Wilson’s vulnerability and her strength that shines through in her songwriting – taking us from bliss to heartbreak and every emotion in between. She may have an otherworldly voice, exceptional songs and musical artistry, but it’s this combined with her warmth, humour and down-to-earth attitude that makes her live show an extraordinarily uplifting experience.
Photos © Rhiannon Law