Howlin' Fun

Old Blind Dogs hump Tucson's leg.

Summers in Scotland can be colder than Tucson winters, so it doesn't bother Jonny Hardie, a member of the Scottish folk band Old Blind Dogs, that he and his colleagues are headed back to the desert and potential temperatures in the 100s this weekend.

"Well, this has been the worst summer we've had in living memory in terms of weather," said Hardie, on the phone from his home in Aberdeen, citing near-constant rain and bitter cold.

"So, yeah, I'm quite looking forward to the heat."

Old Blind Dogs will play their distinctive blend of traditional Celtic, modern folk and world music Sunday night at the Berger Performing Arts Center.

And it's not as if Hardie isn't familiar with Tucson's climate. By his reckoning, Old Blind Dogs have performing in our city "five or six times"--not a bad record for band that formed only 12 years ago.

Then again, if the monsoon weather dumps a bunch of water on us this weekend, it won't bother Hardie. His band has seen massive flooding while playing around Europe during the busy festival season.

"We've been over in Eastern Europe a lot. We've played in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany and Finland," Hardie said. "But in Europe, they have had huge floods this summer. Everywhere I went this year was under six feet of water--Prague, Budapest, Dresden. There's something like 250,000 homeless in Prague because of the flooding."

Casual music fans might be surprised to learn that audiences for Celtic music are as strong as they are in the distant reaches of the European continent. But, then who'd expect a Scottish group to have a strong following in the American Southwest?

Hardie points out that the hunger for traditional music from the British Isles is growing worldwide. "And the reception for our music has been pretty warm in the States generally. I was surprised at that when I was first traveling there," he said.

"I think you can chalk it up to the fact that so many Americans have got heritage and family in Scotland and Great Britain. But it's also a growing interest in music. It's becoming a much wider audience, I think, especially with the growing world music audience."

That interest courses through the band's music, too. Among Old Blind Dogs' attractions is that they incorporate rock influences, as well as reggae and Middle Eastern rhythms, into their sound. The group is considered one of the predominant Celtic outfits to combine traditional and modern music.

The band's intention in this matter is obvious, Hardie said. "I think if we're to be successful, we have to widen the audience and the appeal of the music as much as we can. But at the end of the day we do a lot of traditional songs, too."

He's aware that some listeners might be purists who don't want the old tunes messed about with.

"Sometimes I'm one of them. You're obviously trying to make as many people happy as you can. But you're obviously trying to remain very true and honest to what you're about. You're always going to offend a small minority of the audience. That just the way it goes."

Hardie, who plays fiddle and mandolin, formed the band in 1990 with Buzzby McMillan, who doubles on electric bass and cittern. Award-winning piper Rory Campbell plays the Border pipes and the tin whistle, while blues-inflected vocalist Jim Malcolm contributes guitar and harmonica.

A recent addition is percussionist Fraser Stone, who specializes in African and Latin drums such as the djembe and conga. He's also the youngest member at 20. The others are all in their mid-30s, or, as Hardie puts it, "old geezers."

The band is touring behind its current CD, the refreshing Fit?, which was released late in 2001. The title means "What?" in the Doric dialect of northeast Scotland, and it's used around Aberdeen to express disbelief.

The new disc follows 1999's The World's Room, which marked the band's first American release. Before those recordings, both of which were released by the Connecticut label Green Linnet Records, Old Blind Dogs recorded five highly-acclaimed albums for the Scottish label Lochshore.

The Old Blind Dogs repertoire includes traditional tunes, original songs and exciting arrangements of the poetry of Robert Burns.

The band's music has been praised by publications as varied as Q, Mojo, Folk Roots, Dirty Linen and the Los Angeles Times. Not only was the band nominated for Great Britain's Best Folk Band of 2001, but the UK's Association of Independent Music chose Fit? as a finalist for Celtic Album of the Year.

Although each of the band members is a respected player in his own right, the secret to Old Blind Dogs is not winning competition awards or gathering accolades, Hardie said.

"It's just more about using very simple sounds. It doesn't necessarily have to be complicated, as long as everybody is doing their job. The secret is not being especially great players, but it's in playing together well."

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