For over two decades, the Danny Kyle Open Stage has given emerging artists the chance to shine under the Celtic Connections spotlight. With an opportunity to win a support slot at next year’s festival and a record number of applications received, this year’s competition is fierce.
Each night of the festival between 5 and 7pm, six acts take to the stage to perform a twenty minute set judged by a panel of music industry experts, from professional musicians to agents and music journalists.
While it usually takes place in The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, because of the pandemic the festival has adopted a hybrid format of pre-recorded and in-person events.
This means the Open Stage contest, which began on 21 January, will be happening online with media partners Celtic Music Radio broadcasting the performances until the 6 February final.
From an organisational point of view it’s not been ideal, as the Open Stage’s producer and host Liz Clark will soon tell you.
Clark is a legendary figure on the Celtic music scene, known for her tireless support of up and coming artists. To many musicians, she is affectionately called “Auntie Liz”.
When we speak a few days before opening night, Clark has just received official confirmation the event will take place online. It comes as a relief – Clark feared it would be pulled altogether.
And then comes the laughter. With Clark there is always laughter – a high-pitched burst of joy that is incredibly infectious. “I just need to do 90 Zoom interviews with all the participating artists now – nae problem,” she says. She pauses for a moment and then chuckles, “Who said folk music wis nowt like rock and roll.”
Clark is 70 years old, but she’s not settling into comfortable old age just yet. This year she had to whittle down 350 applications from artists wanting to play the competition.
It’s no surprise such a high number of submissions were received. The Open Stage has become a vehicle for taking artists on to perform across Celtic Connections’ main stages.
In fact, Clark calculated that if this year’s full festival had gone ahead as planned (some shows were cut due to Covid) 180 Open Stage finalists – referred to as “Danny’s” – were on the line-up.
Another reason for the competition’s surge in popularity is the pandemic, she says:
“For a lot of artists they have not had the time to do anything before because they’re running to keep up; they maybe have a full-time job, they’ve got a family, et cetera.
“So, if nothing else, the pandemic has been brilliant for artists writing new music, writing new material, getting together online with people, [and] using all the technology that’s out there.”
This is something Edinburgh musician Isla Ratcliff – a contestant on tonight’s Open Stage – agrees with.
While the fiddle player, singer and composer misses the buzz of a live audience, she is “really grateful” for the time lockdown gave her to record and release her debut album ‘The Castalia’.
The collection of songs is inspired by Ratcliff’s experiences of Cape Breton – an island on the east coast of Canada with a rich traditional music culture and Scottish Gaelic heritage.
Ratcliff has pre-recorded four tracks from the album for tonight’s Open Stage, which she is excited for listeners to hear.
Featuring a mixture of Cape Breton traditional tunes, Scottish strathspeys and original compositions, Ratcliff says, “There’s quite a range of music and I’ll be accompanied by cello, piano and step dance too.”
Performing live, in-person gigs undoubtedly plays an important role in developing an artist’s stagecraft and skills, but Ratcliff says:
“There’s still an important element of performing in video recordings in that you want to get it right. You don’t want to keep doing 100 takes of a performance.”
Duo Eva Väljaots and Robbie Sherratt have already recorded this evening’s performance.
Sherratt says: “We’ve done all we can now and what’s nice about it is we can relax now and not focus on ourselves.
“We’re able to listen to and enjoy the other acts, which is something you don’t always get.”
Based in Finland, the pair are particularly happy to be involved in this year’s online competition – something which may not have been possible if the Open Stage had retuned to a physical event.
Over the last two years Väljaots and Sherratt have been able to perform in Estonia and Finland, but Sherratt explains:
“We’ve really struggled to play in the UK because of the restrictions and uncertainty so the competition is a really nice way for us to play in Scotland.”
Festival-goer Hannah McNeil is looking forward to hearing this evening’s acts.
McNeil has been attending Celtic Connections since she was a young girl and despite living in the States from 2015 until the start of the pandemic, she’s always made sure to return home to Glasgow for the annual festival and Open Stage.
McNeil says: “The Danny Kyle Open Stage is such a great platform for musicians to get their music out there and be heard by listeners all over the world”.
Don’t miss your chance to hear tomorrow’s talent today.
The running order for this evening’s show is as follows: Elia Davidson; The Poachers; Chloe Matharu; Eva Väljaots and Robbie Sherratt; Isla Ratcliff; and Miguel Alfonso.
You can listen to the Danny Kyle Open Stage here.