The Old Blind Dogs Are In Top Form With Their Fifth Release
By Mari Wadsworth
AT FIRST GLANCE, the desert seems an unlikely place for traditional Celtic music to earn a loyal following. With its spare landscape, nomadic population and sprawling urban cities, it's the antithesis of the lush green highlands, ancient castles and provincial communities Scotland calls to mind.
But try to defend that at any of myriad local concerts showcasing what, as it turns out, are some of the finest talents anywhere in the world when it comes to Celtic music, and you're asking for a fight. Tucson audiences are passionate, to put it mildly. Audience participation for any other performance--theatre, rock, jazz, opera, you name it--generally follows the unspoken rule of "clapping only." After a really great performance, we clap hard. Maybe even stand up, if everyone else does.
But get a bunch of Celtic music lovers confined to one room, and even if they can't get out of their seats, the venue is buzzing and crawling. They holler out requests. They holler out where they're from. They make themselves the willing victims of the performers' jokes. They clap, not at the end, but before the music even starts; and all through the middle, and again at the end, long after the house lights come on and all are forced to accept the band will not return for a third encore.
We expect the best from our Celtic bands; and thanks to some really energetic scouting on the part of local promoters like In Concert Tucson, we're rarely disappointed. In fact, a recent foray to Ireland to tour the traditional music scene revealed that the top five bands our Irish hosts recommended had played Tucson within the past year. So if it's Celtic tradition you seek, you could do worse than to stick close to the Old Pueblo.
Case in point: Tucson once again hosts Scotland's Old Blind Dogs, one of the finest traditional ensembles to emerge since the big folk revival back in the '60s. During the three years since their last visit (and the release of their last album, Legacy), they've been hard at work in the studio and abroad, spreading infectious tunes and deepening the sounds of their northeastern homeland.
We caught up with OBD fiddle player Jonny Hardie at his home in Banchory, a small village between rolling hills and a big river about 20 miles outside Aberdeen, Scotland. The band had just returned from Europe, and was packing up for a six-week North American tour to include both coasts and a variety of places in between, including this Saturday's show at the Berger Performing Arts Center.
"We're more away than at home," says Hardie. "We don't play that much in Scotland now--maybe 10 or 12 gigs a year. This year we've been in Germany and Sweden, and in the north of France quite a lot. They've got a great piping tradition in Brittany." The band's fine-tuned ear for tradition in various forms and locales has kept OBD at the forefront of Scottish folk. One of their especial talents has been to seek out lost tunes from diverse sources--from "the old dusty books" and pub halls to vintage recordings--piecing them together and presenting them to audiences worldwide.
Their recordings are a combination of traditional tunes and ballads, whole or as fragments of songs glued together with masterful new arrangements drawing on each of the band members' individual talents. In the past, their studio work has been a fairly straightforward combination of melodic strings, rhythm guitar, and strong percussion.
"We're all interested in the traditions in different ways," says Hardie, whose own training is mainly classical. "I mean, a few of us are interested in Scottish history anyway. And there's bits of the new album that're related to very old songs and tunes. We tried our best to use elements of very old versions of tunes and basically give them an airing to let people hear them. Particularly in the northeast, there's nobody else really doing that stuff and playing it to such a wide audience, so it's kind of important to us."
In addition to that, Five--their fifth album, inaugurating five years together and the addition of a fifth player, Fraser Fifield, on saxophone, border pipes and whistles--takes OBD's trademark sound in a new direction.
"There's different instrumentation now," Hardie explains. We never dreamt we'd be playing with a soprano sax, but we tried it and we liked it. There's elements of all the albums that are sort of sad, and some parts a bit more groovy, a bit more modern sounding. But the level of production of this album is more mature; there's more detail. Before, it was relatively easy to put everything into its place. Whereas now you have to make more space in the sounds...make more effort to feature the individual sounds," he says.
The extra time in the studio has been well worth it. Five is a rich document, a multi-faceted celebration of musicianship that grows in complexity with every listen. In addition to the young Fifield's trio of wind instruments, Hardie adds mandolin, bouzouki and six- and 12-string guitars to his award-winning fiddling; while Buzzby McMillan and Davy Cattanach lend their reggae-inspired rhythm section to the mix on electric bass and long drums. And lead vocalist Ian Benzie continues to shine, setting him apart as perhaps the greatest Scottish singer since Dick Gaughan.
The inside track on the Tucson show suggests newly written instrumentals will include "a mid-eastern beat fused seamlessly with traditional fiddle tunes and songs."
Asked to explain the music's broad-based appeal, even in unlikely places like the desert of the American West, Hardie had this to say: "Fraser and I both studied classical music and revived it playing traditional stuff. There's a sociable aspect of it that you have maybe in jazz, to some degree. But not really in other forms of music: People can come together so easily and play (or listen). Last week I was sitting in Brittany with a bunch of French guys in a band. We couldn't speak very much, but we knew a few tunes we could all play together. Things like that make it all very worthwhile."
So what kind of audience does OBD attract? Hardie is circumspect: "That's a difficult one--I certainly like to think the music seduces all different kinds of age groups and different kinds of people. To a certain extent, a lot of older people like the band; but we play for a lot younger folk as well."
Whatever the reason, we can't seem to get enough of it. Perhaps it's those danceable reels and jigs, the good-natured infatuation so many Americans have for all things Celtic, or that the tales recounted in these folk songs--many dating back to the 1500s--have more to do with life out West than you'd imagine: a sense of identity tied to the physical landscape, an incurable romanticism, and stories of men and women enduring hardship and sometimes winning against all odds; of protecting one's homeland or going it alone in a new world. It's a music of action; of heroes; of passion. And you won't find a more visionary approach to its survival than that of the Old Blind Dogs.
Old Blind Dogs play the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway, at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 13. All seats are reserved. Tickets are $12 and $14, available at Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave.; Piney Hollow, 427 N. Fourth Ave.; and Scot Photo, 2823 E. Speedway. Call 327-4809 or 881-3947 for tickets and information (add $1.50 per ticket for phone reservations).
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