Towards the end of this epic gig, US dobro guitar-slinger and laid-back master of ceremonies Jerry Douglas addresses the fired-up Celtic Connections crowd in Glasgow’s preeminent concert hall. “We know you all could be at home watching Game of Thrones,” he says, “so thank you for coming out.” But squint and there are a few similarities between HBO’s bingeable fantasy hit and the Transatlantic Sessions project that has long been shepherded by Douglas and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain: both have sprawling cast lists, weave together stories from two continents and take great delight in surprising their audiences.
Part melting pot, part jam band, Transatlantic Sessions was originally conceived as a TV showcase in the mid-90s, mixing together folk musicians and traditions from the US, UK and Ireland. It debuted as a freewheeling live show at Glasgow’s roots music festival in 2004 and has been an annual fixture ever since (the current incarnation is also heading out on tour to England and Ireland).
With Douglas and Bain leading a crackerjack 11-piece house band, including foot-stomping fiddler John McCusker, uilleann pipes virtuoso Michael McGoldrick and former Celtic Connections artistic director Donald Shaw on piano, the 2019 edition is further bolstered by five guest artists. That means 16 bodies mingling on a busy stage already dotted with homely floor lamps, low-slung couches and a coffee table stacked with what looks like a hefty rider.
Part of the fun of Transatlantic Sessions is witnessing how the guests are willing to pitch in. As well as playing their own expertly crafted songs, young Scottish folk guitarist Paul McKenna and US mandolin master Tim O’Brien merge into the ensemble to add extra texture as required. Rising Californian bluegrass talent Molly Tuttle and empathetic Irish singer Cara Dillon – who could likely sell out this venue herself – step up to provide haunting backing vocals for Nashville Hall of Famer Gretchen Peters on the brooding Black Ribbons, which was inspired by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill encroaching on Louisiana.
The rotating spotlight on artists – interspersed with the occasional rollicking suite of foot-stomping reels – adds light and shade to a show that, with a halftime breather, runs long at almost three hours. Outlier highlights include Douglas swashbuckling his way through a bluegrass cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe that transcends its jokey premise, and accordionist Phil Cunningham paying tribute to the late Irish folk pioneer Liam O’Flynn with a moving instrumental newly named So Long Liam.
O’Brien, a road veteran with a wickedly dry sense of humour, is a particular joy, capable of switching from tearjerking tales in tribute to the sister he lost as a child to an almost tropical track commemorating the time Keith Richards fell out of a tree in Fiji. He also tags in to duet with Dillon on the plaintive Sailor Boy, from her 2017 album Wanderer, which is a spine-tingling delight.
At 25, Tuttle is at the younger end of the ensemble, but her energetic claw-hammer guitar technique makes a lasting impression. Her propulsive, mob-handed Take the Journey is one of the evening’s later highlights and further proof that the Transatlantic Sessions honours the special UK-US musical relationship at a time when the political one seems more than a little frayed. “See? We can all get along,” says Douglas, before adding, with just a hint of glib Trumpian emphasis: “We have the greatest songs.”