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Dick Gaughan's album "Redwood Cathedral"
DICK GAUGHAN "Redwood Cathedral" Greentrax Recordings CDTRAX158

Here's a thing. In the accompanying write-up Dick quotes another's opinion that for every songwriter we need a thousand song interpreters - then goes on to demonstrate the point. He does this very ably first of all by adding his version of the excellent "Reconciliation" to that of other singers such as John Wright, and of course its creator Ron Kavana.

Each interpretation is different and yields different discoveries and pleasures to the listener. Dick's version being stripped down in terms of accompaniment and sung reflectively, as if as much to himself as anyone else.

A mighty song, oddly neglected by repertoires for many years is Robin Williamson's "October Song" and it was a joy to discover that it was rated highly enough to be included here. The fresh airing adds to versions by, amongst others, The Incredibles and Tom Gilfellon, not to forget one of the late Roy Williamson's finest recorded moments. The point isn't that one version is better than another - it's more about the capacity of truly wonderful songs to reveal different delights, new facets at the hands of good interpreters. Dick's version is a classic of minimalism, where less definitely adds up to more. He lingers over the lyrics against a very muted keyboard and at times the nuance of light and shade and the occasional inflection that takes you by surprise, reminded me of the way that the finer flamenco singers deal with a lyric ie. pouncing at times caressing at other and squeezing the last drop from a song, and the voice itself becoming an instrument whose overall sound is as vital as the lyric itself. In the entire recorded Gaughan catalogue this is one of the highest spots; greatness here is no hyperbole but an accurate description of this piece of work.

"All the Kings Horses" is a self-composition written on the eve of the great laxative - the General Election of last year. It reminded me of a previous occasion when Mrs T's gang were re-elected, and an incandescent Muriel Gray wrote scathingly of the motives of those who kept returning a party so obviously steeped in arrogant self-interest, taking many a well aimed sideswipe at targets such as the them televised performance of a "curiously slurred" Nicholas Fairbairn. Her column provoked a huge post bag including a letter from someone who expressed the opinion that he'd never read such uncontrolled hatred, such vituperation, blatant outpouring of the bile, etc... ending up with "... and it was wonderful". This song falls into a similar category. Although it doesn't go as far as the famous Bob Dylan snarl:
"I'll stand over your grave To make sure that you're dead"

from "Masters of War", and perhaps isn't from the same stable, it is certainly from the stable next door as Dick reflecting on the scale of the Tory's defeat sings repeated:
"All the King's horses, All the King's men Will never put you back together again"

I listened to this for the first time in the same week as Mrs Thatcher had two outbursts, one on the topic of unmarried mothers being best dealt with by religious organisations and the second in a letter to the Times in support of General Pinochet. It was great to know that she doesn't matter any more, and to sit back and enjoy the lyric with wry sounding backing coming out of the speakers and recall the roll call of the fallen - Aitken, Portillo, Forsyth, Hamilton etc. No attempt at penetrating analyses in the song and if you respond to it as I did, you'll just sit back, chortle at the memory and in the words of the lady herself "rejoice ... just rejoice!"

The album is a paean to the work of people Dick regards as good songwriters and no-one will be surprised therefore, to find Brian MacNeill represented twice, both songs coming from "Back o' the North Wind". I found the opening track "Muir and the Master Builder" about John Muir, the instigator of the National Parks system in the USA extremely effective in terms of melody and lyric. I have recently read "The Undiscovered Country" by Phil Bartlett analysing why people take to the great outdoors and Brian McNeill sums up with masterful economy the spirituality of that experience. He finds through the character of Muir, God in the hills and valleys, rather than through "Calvin and the Bible" which Muir in the song is exhorted to leave behind.
"Give a blind man back his eyes To find the brightest of the stars Then lead him to the altar of a better God by far In the vale of the Redwood Cathedral"

Every hill walker ever born will recognise immediately the experience so poignantly summarised and I'll certainly drink to it.

The album ends with the haunting "Fine Horseman" by the late Lal Waterson. Like "October Song" the album again places the work of someone perhaps a bit neglected of late before us and when you hear this so hauntingly done, you get a rush of remembrance about what a fine writer as well as singer Lal was. I like some of the songs better than others, and at the fifth hearing my favourites are the opening and closing tracks with the mighty "October Song" in between, but to quibble over the ones I like less would simply be churlish as, it is often the case with albums of high quality that some of the songs that initially make less impact are the ones that have a delayed effect, and catch you by surprise with a depth charge-like effect and appear the freshest when the album otherwise assumes a comfortable familiarity. That may well happen, but even if it doesn't, this is still good, good stuff.

A dozen tracks more than half of which exceed five minutes in length (with two over six minutes) with a range of writers from Adam MacNaughtan to Si Khan ensures that there are other reasons why this album represents value for money. Now an album to follow with a high content of Scottish traditional music, or a belated sequel to the (much) earlier "Songs of Ewan McColl" would be a step towards perfection, and talking as I was earlier about the neglected and overdue...

Hector Christie

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This album was reviewed in Issue 30 of The Living Tradition magazine.