January 22 Rachel Sermanni returned to Celtic Connections on the verge of releasing her debut EP Black Currents, and it was clear from the outset just how much she has grown as an artist over the past year. Her voice remains the primary attraction, but in her expanded band – featuring Louis Abbott from Admiral Fallow on drums, along with another kit (the two drummers keep swapping), three fiddle players, double bass and guitar – she seems to have found a musical match. Having been compared with Joni Mitchell, cited Eva Cassidy as an influence, and supported Elvis Costello, the cardie-clad, softly-spoken Scot seems to be continuing down the “classic” singer-songwriter route.
‘Bones’, a song in waltz time, has a suitably languid quality, reminding that Sermanni’s is the kind of music that could have been made any time since the early ’70s, with no grandstanding and no gimmicks. But Sermanni is no wallflower. As Abbott shakes out sleigh bells in a bag during ‘Waltz’, she rises to the rhythm on tiptoes, her feet almost coming out of her big Chelsea boots. But the highlight of her set (and the EP) is also the most radio-ready of her songs; ‘The Fog’ is a dark-hearted fairytale full of staccato details and bodhran drum, and is ripe for exposure to a much larger audience.
Madrid-based singer Lourdes Hernández, who performs as Russian Red (after the emphatic shade of lipstick that she wears tonight) recorded her 2011 album, Fuerteventura, in Glasgow with Belle & Sebastian producer Tony Doogan. Stevie Jackson and Bob Kildea from the band also helped out in the studio, and join Hernández on stage tonight, playing guitar and bass from seats at the side of the stage. ’I Hate You But I Love You’ threatens to provide an early standout with some cracking harmonica from Jackson, but some characteristic Belle & Sebastian-style touches are not enough to distract from the apparent disconnection between singer and song. A few Iberian handclaps on ‘The Sun The Trees’ add pace, but the counter-melodies are pure Scottish pop.
‘Fuerteventura’ sounds like a knockabout cabaret number, and misses the brass parts added by Mick Cooke on the album, while ‘Braver Soldier’ has a languorous lack of precision. Perhaps as she says, being in Glasgow whose scene she so admires, has rather overwhelmed her. After some technical problems with her guitar, which Jackson valiantly fixes, Hernández launches into old favourite ‘Cigarettes’ (from her 2008 debut I Love Your Glasses) with some pleasant picking. And though eventually the band find their groove, the song lacks a proper chorus and Hernández’s lyrics, sung in accented English, seem insubstantial. ‘Mi Cancion’ finally picks up some momentum, with Kildea getting to his feet and Jackson turning up the volume.
Still, judging by the reaction of the crowd the entire Glaswegian population of expat Spaniards is in the room tonight, and they love to applaud. However, Russian Red’s take on local indie music leaves me wondering if there is a Spanish equivalent of the phrase ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’.
Photographed by Michael Gallacher