This year the brilliant Celtic Connections Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary with yet another stellar line-up. Over the next three weeks a fine blend of home-grown and international talent will descend on Glasgow to perform a plethora of gigs throughout the city’s wonderfully diverse venues. My festival started last Saturday evening with a trip to see Olympic Swimmers in the beautiful basement surroundings of the Oran Mor in the west end.
The Glasgow five-piece are a band I’ve grown to love over the past couple of years. That love affair first sparked into life while watching them at a free performance at Bloc, and blossomed through numerous support slots with almost all of the Scottish music scenes biggest bands. It was however last year’s release of stunning debut album “No Flags Will Fly” that cemented their place in my heart.
Despite their extremely early stage time of 7.45, the band walked into the pitch black three-quarters full basement to be welcomed by a loud cheer from those who had wisely got to the venue promptly. Susie took centre stage in a sweeping long black dress as they launched straight into “Apples and Pears”. Susie with her eyes clenched tightly shut sang the poignant lyrics, “In just a room they called, with tongue in cheek, my home, it’s freezing cold, my blood is dry, the power’s about to go. The past is on to me but that knife that’s in the kitchen sink won’t find its home in me” with burning intensity. Much like James Graham of The Twilight Sad she too seems to transport herself somewhere else as she sings, completely immersed in the music, words and stories behind them. There is a distance to her delivery, yet it still manages to reach out and make a connection with the audience while tugging on heartstrings with devastating effect.
With a “Thank you very much, we’re Olympic Swimmers” they went from “Apples and Pears” to Apple Macs and keys, as the staccato bounce of “Fallen Trees” sprung to life. While it’s somewhat of a novelty for other members of the band to sing, Jonny and Graeme’s backing vocals proved the perfect foil to Susie’s high pitched “ooooo oooo oooooh’s” towards the songs climax. One of the bands true strengths is their ability to take songs in different creative directions while still ultimately sounding like Olympic Swimmers. This of course is in no small part down to Susie’s distinctive vocal cords. The sets next number “Where It Snows” was the perfect example of this as it verged on the ethereal American dreampop/shoegaze sound of Asobi Seksu while still managing to have its heart very much rooted in Scotland.
The rippling of applause from the attentive audience led to Susie telling us we were “very polite”. Obviously feeling a little stuck for stage banter she explained to us “anywhere but Glasgow I feel like I’ve got something to say”. She then told us of her, Jonny and Graeme’s treacherous car trip to get to the gig and how they had to change a tire on their car mid journey at the side of the road. She added “Celtic Connections is meant to be about spinning yarns that are meaningful and life affirming; mine was just depressing and sore, but I guess that kind of sums us up”.
Yet another side of the band then reared its head as the extended crunching post-rock hum of the instrumental introduction to “Father Said” tore through the venue. Susie then proceeded to sing what was quite possibly the longest note ever mid song, adding afterwards “Those who have seen us before know we usually leave after that song, basically because I can’t sing anymore, but we’ve still got a half set to go”. This drew a big laugh from the crowd but thankfully her fears were unfounded as she managed to sing on and finish the other half of the set with aplomb. The beautiful hushed “Bricks of Our Building” was introduced by Susie telling us it was written about a street she lived on in Glasgow that was in the Clydebank blitz, she then hastened to add the blitz didn’t happen when she lived there.
Unfortunately the quiet nature of the song meant the band were now battling with a bustling bar at the back of the venue as the room filled up with more festival goers thirsty for their libation of choice. It seemed the polite attentive crowd that Susie had praised earlier in the set now seemed to be at odds with the venues new arrivals. Susie pointed this fact out saying “thank you to the lovely quiet people; sorry you had to order your drink the not so quiet people”. However the band didn’t let the barroom noise and chatter knock them from their stride replying with a striking rendition of “Mt Noah” which got a great response from the crowd, with its lush keys sounding particularly impressive.
Susie thanked everyone gathered in the Oran Mor for coming to watch the band and encouraged anyone who had came to see them to stay for Washington Irving, before adding “this is going to be our last song”. The statement drew a clearly audible “Awwwww” from at least one member of the crowd, to which Susie replied “I like an Awwwww”. Even if only one person made it audible with an “awwwww” I’m pretty sure plenty others felt the same way after yet another captivating live performance.
I can’t quite believe I’ve managed to get this near to the end of an Olympic Swimmers review without mentioning the drumming. In Jonny Scott the band have one of busiest and most sought after drummers in the UK. When he’s not in the seat for Olympic Swimmers he moonlights with The Unwinding Hours, Malcolm Middleton and The Kills to name but a few. Whether keeping time delicately on “Where It Snows” or fast passed military drumming and pounding the drums into submission like on “Father Said” and set closer “Knots”, he really is an exceptional sticksman to have as the beating heart of the band. The Phantom Band-esque chiming of “Knots” brought the set to an up-tempo clattering conclusion and saw the band exit into the darkness to a well deserved barrage of cheers and applause.
Even though I say to hell with laboured clichés about Olympic Swimmers making “waves” or a “big splash” in 2013, I do believe they are destined to have an extremely successful year. Hopefully the next twelve months will see the band build on the success of releasing one of the best Scottish albums of 2012 in “No Flags Will Fly”. I for one look forward to hearing new material and getting my arse along to some headline tour dates in the not too distant future.
1) Apples and Pears
2) Fallen Trees
3) Where It Snows
4) A Curse or A Blessing
5) Father Said
6) Bricks of Our Building
7) Mt Noah
8) Rung Down The Curtain